Sansom, C. J. Dark Fire.

NY: Viking, 2004.

It’s 1540 and three years have passed since London lawyer Matthew Shardlake got swept up in the investigation of a series of murders at a Sussex monastery, solved the mystery but mostly lost his faith in the process, and retreated into his previous quiet career in property law. His old boss, Thomas Cromwell, the king’s vicar general, is now First Minister and Earl of Essex, but he’s made a blunder in trying to set up King Henry with a German marriage.

The king doesn’t like Anne of Cleves even a little bit and, moreover, he has his eye on sixteen-year-old Catherine Howard, kinsman of the Duke of Norfolk — not only the premier peer of the realm (they still are) but the leader of the papist party. If Cromwell were to fall and Norfolk take over his power, the infant Reformation in England would be done for. It’s a complicated time, politically and theologically, and Londoners are keeping their heads down. (A boatman on the Thames bemoans to Shardlake the inability of the common folk to keep up with what’s happening and with what they’re expected to believe.) Matthew, meanwhile, is approached by an old client to defend his young niece, who is accused of having murdered her even younger cousin by throwing him down a well. She refuses to speak — and if she won’t plead either guilty or innocent, so she can be properly tried, she’ll be found in contempt of court. Only, in those days, such a ruling didn’t mean incarceration, it meant being tortured by pressing with large weights until you either talked or suffocated. There’s no time to put a case together and Matthew despairs of the girl’s life — until word comes from his old master that she will be given a reprieve for two weeks, with the proviso that Shardlake undertake an urgent investigation for Cromwell, a matter of state. It appears that the formula for “Greek fire,” invented by the ancient Greeks, known to the Romans, used successfully by the Byzantines against the Turks, and since lost, may have been rediscovered in a monastery basement, having been brought to England by a refugee from the fall of Constantinople. (Think napalm.) Such a weapon might give England supremacy over her enemies on the Continent, especially Catholic Spain. An alchemist and his lawyer brother apparently are attempting to peddle it to Cromwell, but the two have disappeared. And the Earl, having witnessed a demonstration, has unwisely told King Henry all about it, in an attempt to shore up his own increasingly shaky position at court. Now he has to produce, or else.

So now the hunchback lawyer has two difficult cases to deal with, a very short deadline, and terrible prospects. He gets the assistance of young Jack Barak, a cynical, street-wise supporter of Cromwell, and the two jump into things, carrying out frantic investigations, criss-crossing London almost daily, trying not to get themselves killed by whoever it is that seems to be opposing them, and getting no sleep at all. Shardlake finds himself breaking into private homes in search of evidence, and trying unsuccessfully to stay out of the way of a group of anti-Cromwell conspirators. And on top of that, he’s having grave moral doubts about turning Greek fire loose on Europe, even if he can find it.

Sansom does a marvelous job both in telling the two main stories (and several smaller ones in the background) and in setting it all in the context of Tudor religious politics and London society at several levels. Dissolution was, I thought, a generally excellent book, but to my mind this second excursion is even better. The author (who is both a graduate historian and a solicitor) has a deep understanding of the times and the issues and makes the people and the City of London come alive in multiple dimensions. It’s a long book, and complicated, and you’ll have to pay attention, but it’s definitely worth the effort.


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