Monday, February 21, 2011


Heartstone is C.J. Sansom's fifth Tudor mystery featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. I loved the first four: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, and Revelation.

Tudor England, with its larger-than-life monarchs and political intrigues and foreign wars and religious chaos, is a novelist's playground. Sansom, who knows his history, has created an engaging protagonist who is enough of an insider to know what is going on, and enough of an outsider to evaluate it for contemporary readers. OK, Shardlake is a bit anachronistic, not only in his language but also in his views about society, women, children, religion, and warfare. If he weren't, the stories would be less interesting, so who's complaining?

Well, I am, but not because of Shardlake's progressivism. Unfortunately, Sansom's writing in book five has gotten flabby. He did not need 640 pages to tell this story, and the story itself is less than compelling. (Shardlake bullheadedly persists in trying to find out who incarcerated Ellen in Bedlam, the London insane asylum, 19 years ago. He equally bullheadedly tries to uncover details about Hugh Curteys, an orphaned young landowner who has been made a ward of the Hobbey family. His saner friends Barak and Guy can't dissuade him; nor can various of his enemies. So he endangers himself and others in picturesque ways for two months before finally stumbling onto the truth, and then of course things get really dangerous.)

Sansom has already abundantly proven that he can do better. He has no excuse for a plot that doesn't get exciting until about page 500, or for a protagonist who continually tells us that he knows something is not right but can't figure out what it is, or for lengthy, improbable conversations structured only to give 21st-century readers insight into 16th-century history and customs. He should not be allowed to put Master Shardlake through so many miseries without any accompanying character development.

And somebody needs to tell Sansom - or his copy editor - that he is being needlessly irritating. His characters are constantly saying something "quietly" (or, toward the end of the book, "gently"); sometimes quietness breaks out three times on a page. Characters, including the narrator, are hazy on pronoun case usage. Comma splices abound. Even the sloppy editing, however, has its delights - when stags and does get together in Hampshire forests, they inevitably produce "fauns."

Yes, Heartstone has gotten some excellent reviews. The New York Times reviewer said it "may be the best novel in this richly entertaining and reassuringly scholarly series," and both Publishers Weekly and Booklist gave it a starred review. If those reviewers actually read the book, perhaps they enjoyed Sansom's detailed descriptions of Tudor warfare: the callousness of Henry VIII and his court, the cruelty involved in conscripting and managing troops, the ignorance of the highest military leaders, the sordid daily life in the camps, the layout of battleships, the view from the deck of the oncoming enemy fleet. His descriptions of civilian life are equally arresting: dangerous, painfully slow travel; children bought and sold so that rich men could grow richer; impossibly corrupt magistrates at all levels; peasants being driven off the land; justice perverted by false accusations and murder.

Sansom's ability to evoke a bygone place and time is probably why even mildly disappointed reviewers give him some credit. As Amazon's UK reviewer charitably noted: "If Heartstone is not quite vintage Sansom, that is perhaps because the author has set (and maintained) such a high standard." USA Today's reviewer, though calling Heartstone "Sansom's least compelling novel,"admitted that it's still "better than pretty much any other historical fiction out there."

Certainly there are pleasures to be found in this needlessly inflated book. Fans of Matthew Shardlake should definitely read it, especially since there is bound to be a sixth book in a year or two. By the time we see Shardlake again, Henry VIII will have died, and either Edward VI will be on the throne or courtiers will be plotting to put their own favorites there. In such exciting times, perhaps Shardlake will get his groove back. Maybe he'll even fall in love.

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