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I don’t read so much crime fiction set in the past but I do make an exception for a great author who has come to prominence with his Shardlake series.
I first encountered the writing of C J Sansom on my way home by train and facing a very long journey I made an impulse buy in the station and found ‘Dissolution’ nestled between a BLT, a packet of mints and a bottle of water.
I am still not sure what drew me to the book but I settled into my seat, ripped open the BLT and started the first chapter.
I was gripped from the word go and I certainly didn’t notice the end of the sandwich or a whole packet of mints disappearing as I devoured the fast paced plot. I really warmed to Matthew Shardlake who is a hunchbacked lawyer operating in the court of Henry VIII. As a character he exhibits logic but is also vulnerable too; not as a consequence of his own physical state but because 16th century England was so unforgiving to anyone who did not conform to a specific physical blueprint.
Sansom’s books are carefully plotted, of that there is no doubt and he certainly has crime writer’s logic. I have to say the real jewels in the crown for me in this series are Dark Fire, which won the 2005 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award and then Revelation which appeared three years later.
Both books are skilfully handled and the dramatic highpoints are tense and extraordinarily unsettling. It would be difficult to choose my favourite among these two titles but for me they represent the pinnacle of the series.
What I find so interesting in Revelation is the way the plot lines have such a contemporary feel about them. Although we are talking about the year 1534, Sansom manages to pack in tax increases, the shocking way in which the mentally ill were treated, mass killings of prostitutes and even a whale which meets an unfortunate end when it mistakenly swims up the very filthy Thames. Although we are dealing with a world almost 500 years ago it seems strangely familiar and contemporary, this is skilful work indeed.
I like to weave contemporary issues into my novels and have covered subliminal psychotic induction and modern day slavery, as examples, into my narratives. I guess the Tudor equivalent to ‘spi’ would have to be the mountebanks and tricksters whose sleight of hand robbed many an innocent of their money on the city streets at that time.
As we know different forms of slavery have always existed and it seems like this will always be the case. More’s the pity.
Thorough research underpins every great book and I have travelled down the highways and byways and wound up in some very unsavoury alley ways looking for human traffickers and the like in The Uncounted..
CJ Sansom has got historical research down to a fine art. Stephanie Merritt said in an Observer review many years back (and I have never forgotten it) that Sansom makes his characters modern in their make-up, certainly in terms of their psychology but this is countered by a setting which is authentic and is wholly believable.
I am looking forward to reading Dominion which is Sansom’s latest outing and this is a very different kettle of fish. It is a political thriller, set in 1952 and tackles the scenario of a Nazi victory where the UK becomes a totalitarian state.
Still this will have to wait as I am currently spending most of my time working on the latest book. I keep looking at the calendar, having a panic and then settling back to it. I sometimes find myself daydreaming of selling the number of books a title by C J Sansom commands….one day!
Books by James McKenna can be downloaded at http://tinyurl.com/c9ultl3