This is my review of Heartstone (The Shardlake series) by C. J. Sansom.
Bearing in mind that this fifth Shardlake novel is a guaranteed bestseller whatever the quality, Sansom has taken the trouble to produce an intriguing and well-researched mystery which is an improvement, I think, on the last adventure, “Revelation”. What always impresses me most about his writing is the portrayal of the Tudor period – which tends to be romanticised in our minds – as a brutal, police state, in which many people lived in fear. Yet, in the midst of all the corruption and greed, a thread of justice prevails, enabling Shardlake to right some wrongs in the end. I also like the way in which the “goodies” are not perfect: even Shardlake offers small bribes to get information, and agrees to help cover up a murderer’s identity on compassionate grounds. Also, everything does not end completely happily at the end, and some details are left open to the reader’s imagination.
I did not mind the fairly slow pace of much of the book, although I was reminded of schools’ history programmes on the radio fifty years ago, in which an observer travelled back in time to describe past societies at work. However, Sansom’s descriptions are vivid – I was interested in the detailed account of how Henry VIII’s fleet against the French is provisioned down at Portsmouth, how ordinary people mistrust the silver coinage because it has been debased with copper, how stands of fine oaks are beginning to be ripped out to make ships’ masts and charcoal for iron foundries, how a deer hunt is organised. The details of the “Mary Rose” are fascinating, particularly since the reader knows its fate – I was struck by the accounts of the nets over the decks to hinder the enemy from boarding, but also making escape impossible if the top-heavy ship were to keel over.
The stereotyping does not bother me either – it’s quite amusing to draw parallels between Shardlake and sidekick Barak, and, say, Morse with Lewis. I can also accept Shardlake’s perpetual folly in getting himself into impossibly tight spots, but always surviving by dint of physical strength and endurance which an ageing, disabled man is unlikely to possess. The rather modern way of thinking and talking used by Shardlake and Barak does not grate too much. My only major criticism is that the denouement never lives up to expectations, when, with a man of Sansom’s writing abilities (as shown in “Winter in Madrid”), it could. Once again, I am left feeling that the critical dramatic scenes in which the details of mysteries are revealed tend to be a bit “hammy” and are not written as subtly and convincingly as they could be.