Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and sergeant, might be forgiven for thinking he has been permitted, finally, the gift of a peaceful retirement from the intrigues of court, allowed instead to nurture his legal practice, to care for his dependents. But all such hopes die in flames, alongside the tortured body of Anne Askew, whose terrible death Shardlake is forced to witness as some sort of punishment. While some may debate secretly whether Anne died a heretic or martyr, others have even more dangerous thoughts. The court is once more divided between reformers and traditionalists, the troubled mind of the diseased, obese, dying King Henry VIII wavering between the two. The traditionalists are determined to find a link between Anne Askew and other deniers of transubstantiation and Henry’s reformer Queen, Catherine Parr. Henry loves his nurse Queen but she may be about to prove herself her own worst enemy. Catherine’s uncle and adviser Lord William Parr calls on Shardlake to once more put himself at the service of Catherine, a woman he holds truly dear even though such service has already almost cost him his life.
A printer has been found dead, murdered, in the printing shops of St Paul’s. In his hand lay a fragment of the front page of a manuscript that could cause mortal danger to the Queen. The fragment comes from the frontispiece of a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, written by Catherine and stolen from her bedchamber. This is an age of forbidden books, when any sentence can be open to innocent or willful misinterpretation. The Tower grows full and heretics burn. In great fear for her life, Catherine persuades Matthew to investigate the printer’s murder and to find and restore the Lamentation to her before Henry discovers its existence and her husband becomes her executioner, just as he became to the wife who preceded her.
C.J. Sansom has achieved a remarkable feat with Lamentation. He brings to life, with all its colours, stench and desperation, a period of history that to me at least had become overly familiar. During his last months, Henry VIII placed the necks of many of his courtiers on a knife’s edge, while the streets of London and towns further afield stank with the burned remains of his victims and those of his fanatical advisers. No-one could have felt the fear more than Henry’s sixth wife and it is that appalling dread that Sansom captures perfectly, not just as it affects Catherine but also as it marked the days and nights of everyone around her, including Matthew. In these dangerous times, you don’t need a stolen manuscript to incriminate you, just a word in the right ear is enough, and Shardlake has to deal with the threat of that in his current legal case which involves the dispute between a brother and sister over the ownership of a painting. It sounds innocuous but it is far from trivial. This troubling case complements Shardlake’s work for the Queen so well – the religious storm reaches every room of the house.
It’s been a considerable time since I read a Matthew Shardlake novel. Lamentation is the sixth in the series but the gap between the books is rarely a short one. I also hadn’t read the previous novel, Heartstone, having stalled over Revelation. I was in two minds whether to return to the series but I read the opening chapter in the bookshop and it was magnificent. I was captivated, bought the book and read it straight away, barely drawing breath. Lamentation is the best of the series that I’ve read but it is also one of the finest Tudor novels that I’ve ever read, and I’m including the Hilary Mantel novels in that.
Time has moved on for Shardlake. He has been damaged by the events of Heartstone. We are repeatedly reminded of the trauma that he suffered aboard the Mary Rose, so much so that I will now make sure I read that novel soon. There’s no Guy in this novel and Jack Barak, Shardlake’s longterm assistant and heavy hand, is now married with children. Nicholas, a young apprentice, is Shardlake’s new assistant and watching the trust grow between master and pupil is such a highlight of Lamentation. Barak certainly has his role in the story, though, and it is one that the reader won’t forget in a hurry.
Tudor London is vividly brought to life and so, too, is the court. We have glimpses of Henry that are all the more revealing because they are stolen and fleeting. We also encounter Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth and those who earn their living fawning over the princesses and Queen, whether as guards, ladies in waiting, anyone with a petition, fools, craftsmen, lawyers, churchmen, or distant hungry relatives. Shardlake’s position is never less than precarious but all the way through we hear of events through his calm, sensitive and wise first person narration. We hear his frustrations and worries, listen to the abuse that he suffers, the insults that he endures, and the thoughts that he keeps close about Catherine Parr, the woman who may not always be his Queen.
Lamentation is a wonderful novel – luxurious, rich and stately. Every page of this long and hugely rewarding book transports us to another time that has the power to both dazzle and terrify. A reading highlight of the year for sure.