I wasn’t going to write this, since I’ve already reviewed a book in the Shardlake series (Dark Fire). But Tombland is a little different—it is not just a murder mystery but also describes a little-known event in English history.

The series centres around Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer in London, who used to work for Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. When Cromwell fell, he continued working for the royal family. Henry VIII died at the end of the last book, and Shardlake is now working for the 15-year-old Lady Elizabeth, who would eventually become Elizabeth I.

This book is set in 1549. King Edward VI, an 11-year-old boy, is on the throne, with his uncle Lord Somerset, in charge as Protector. There is unrest in the country: Lord Somerset is waging a war against Scotland, which does not seem to be achieving anything except emptying the coffers. People are suffering from unemployment and rising prices to pay for the war. Big landowners are fencing off common lands for their sheep, leaving poor farmers less and less space to graze their livestock.

Shardlake is summoned by Lady Elizabeth and asked to look into the death of a woman, Edith Boleyn, who had come to see her, claiming to be a distant relation. Edith’s body was found stuck headfirst into a stream near Norwich. When Shardlake and his assistant Nicholas Overton arrive in Norwich, they find that Edith’s husband, John Boleyn, has been accused of the murder. Shardlake is sceptical, convinced that Boleyn has been framed.

They meet Edith’s father, Gawen Reynolds, a rich and influential man in Norwich. He is also quite clearly a violent man, a trait inherited by Edith’s twin sons, Gerald and Barnabas, a pair of thugs who want to see their father hang. Shardlake’s investigations do not go down well with the trio. And to make things worse, he manages to annoy Richard Southwell, a man whom many have warned should not be crossed.

In the meantime, the promised justice for the poor has not materialized, and they decide that they have had enough. A mass movement starts to take hold, led by John Kett and his brother William. The Ketts amass thousands[1] at Mousehold Heath, just outside Norwich. Greedy and unjust landlords are brought to trial with the people as jury. Shardlake gets caught up in the movement, helping to ensure that the trials are fair. But in spite of the so-called rebels’ clear allegiance to the king and the peaceful nature of their protest, there is a war brewing: the rich are not about to let peasants take power away from them.

Unlike the other books in the series, where Shardlake’s investigation takes centre stage, CJ Sansom gives almost equal weight to both these stories—the imagined and the historical. The investigation takes a back seat as Sansom describes Kett’s rebellion. The end of the whodunit, however, although not a complete surprise, is satisfying.

At the end of the last book, it felt like this series had come to an end. I am so glad that it hasn’t. Shardlake is a wonderful character. His disability makes him an outsider, as does his strong sense of justice that does not always bend to the desires of his powerful patrons. I look forward to more books in the series.


[1] Estimates say they numbered around 16,000.