When I mentioned to a friend that I enjoyed Susanna Gregory’s medieval whodunits, she lent me the entire series of novels set during the time of Henry VIII with a hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, as the main character. Having just finished the first one (although strictly speaking, Dark Fire is the second in the series), I’m glad she did.
Dark Fire is a historical novel that is also a murder mystery, set in London during the last years of Henry VIII. The king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is a disaster, and he wants to divorce her and marry Katherine Howard. But there are fears that the marriage to Howard will take England back to Catholicism, with dire consequences for Protestants and those who had defied Rome.
The novel takes place in 1540, the hottest summer of the century. Matthew Shardlake takes on the case of Elizabeth, a young girl who has been accused of killing her cousin. But Elizabeth will not utter a word, either to Shardlake or at her trial, and is condemned to the press, an inhuman punishment for those who will not plead.
In the meantime, Thomas Cromwell, Shardlake’s old master, is losing favour with the king. Cromwell arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves and would stand to lose his position and very possibly his life, if the king married Katherine Howard and went back to Catholicism.
Cromwell promises the king Greek fire, a legendary substance used by the Byzantines to blow up ships—a fire that could burn on water. The formula had been lost for centuries but had been found in London, and the substance had been secretly recreated. Cromwell wants Shardlake to help him find the Greek fire in time for a demonstration planned for the king in ten days. He “persuades” Shardlake by delaying Elizabeth’s sentence.
But people connected with Greek fire are being brutally murdered. Shardlake has not only to find the formula and expose the person behind the killings but also unravel the mystery surrounding Elizabeth. He is helped in this by Barak, one of Cromwell’s men sent to help—and keep an eye on—the lawyer.
C.J. Sansom’s fine eye for detail brings Tudor London alive: the noise and commotion of the streets; the narrow, warped wooden stairs in a badly built, lopsided house; the expensive red and green wallpaper on the walls of a senior barrister’s office; and the bottles of herbs and spices and musky smell of a Moorish apothecary’s shop. I could feel the heat and the smells that came off the river at low tide.
The characters are engaging. Shardlake, because of his disability, is an outsider and a loner with a strong sense of justice. Barak seems like a thug at first but Sansom slowly reveals the man behind the tough exterior: a loyal man who, like Shardlake, cares for those hard done by.
Like the best of historical novels, Dark Fire immerses the reader in the period—a time of turmoil and uncertainty, power struggles and religious strife. Not that different, then, from ours.
See also Tombland in the series, published in 2019.