Author of the Month

Name: C J Sansom

First Novel: Dissolution

Most Recent Book: Heartstone

'I have little doubt that you too will be utterly engrossed and captivated into this book; it is a genuinely wonderful achievemnt.'

In this fifth book of the series, Shardlake has lost his housekeeper, Joan, to influenza and her replacement , Steward Gridiron , is not a success. Dorothy, the widow of his good friend, Roger Elliard, has left London, leaving Shardlake missing their close friendship. The French, taking advantage of Henry’s unpopularity in Europe, are threatening to invade.

When Shardlake is summoned to Hampton Court by the Queen, Catherine Parr, he is given the task of investigating the apparent suicide of Michael, the son of one of the Queen’s old servants. This takes him to a manor close to Portsmouth where the French invasion fleet are rumoured to intend to land. At the same time he has a private investigation of his own involving the estate of a woman locked up in Bedlam who believes herself in love with him. He takes with him Jack Barak, who is avoiding being recruited into the King’s army by travelling on official court business.

Against the background of an England anxious about the future and still with underlying tensions on religious matters, Shardlake uses his considerable intellect and knowledge of people to find the truth about Michael’s death. This leads him into a web of deceit and lies, all revolving about money. The incarceration of Ellen in Bedlam is also not straightforward and involves those at the heart of power in Henry’s England. Danger is very close to Shardlake.

This another fascinating, engrossing and totally satisfying tale from CJ Sansom. Shardlake continues his life as a lawyer in the Court of Requests, but the harsh reality of life at the time has meant that some good friends have gone. The tense and anxious atmosphere of England awaiting the French invasion is so clearly conveyed, along with the details of the longbow practice and recruitment to the King’s force.

The dangers and privations of a journey at that time along with tensions and worries of the enlisted men are extremely vivid. Recent research into the sinking of the King’s warship, the Mary Rose is cleverly incorporated into the fast moving and horrifying plot. CJ Sansom brilliantly imagines the feelings and panic of that disaster and we feel that we are really there.

This, I think, is the crux of the excellence of these books. The descriptions of places and the understanding of human reactions mean that this is a totally believable tale that carries you back nearly five hundred years. I have little doubt that you too will be utterly engrossed and captivated into this book; it is a genuinely wonderful achievemnt.

Reviewed by: S.D.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?
An original plot in an unusual setting which the author is familiar with but we are not. Characters with depths which are gradually peeled away. Above all, a great twist – the hardest thing of all to achieve I think.
2) Now that the crime/thriller genre represents the largest section of fiction sold in the UK and Ireland, do you think we do enough to celebrate the quality and diversity of the writing?
Yes, actually – as we should. The Golden Age in England – which produced some brilliant books let it be said – now seems so narrow and socially constricted. Now we have books covering every period, area and culture. Though I think we will be seen as a period constricted with a preoccupation with serial killers. I know I have written one myself, and they can be challenging especially in the plot intricacies required, and there are very good ones around; but there are just too many around. One longs for something else on he shelves.
3) In Dissolution, the effect of King Henry’s attack on the monasteries is the backdrop to your story. In Dark Fire, the use of the powerful weapon based on oil is the starting point. In Heartstone, Henry’s campaign against France and the sinking of the Mary Rose are integral. When starting out on a new Shardlake novel do you always have a particular historical event in mind?
I always look for an event which means I can have a new type of book, a new setting. This time it is war.
4) Henry is now close to death. Shardlake has established a rapport with the young Princess Elizabeth. Will the next Shardlake story (I hope there is one!) move on to Edward, Mary or Elizabeth, or will Henry have one final outing?
Indeed, we are now in 1545 and Henry does not have long to live now. I would like to do one more with him but keep jumping forward around 2-3 years or so between each book. I have ideas for one in Edward’s reign (possibly Shardlake getting involved in the huge attempted social revolution in Norfolk in 1549) and one in Mary’s (Shardlake in exile, perhaps in Calvin’s Geneva). Then there is Elizabeth’s long reign although by the time it starts in 1558 Shardlake will be a bit long in the tooth, as will I. But Elizabeth is such a fascinating, brilliant woman, in many ways the antithesis of her appalling father. I would love to feature her and the mostly constructive changes she made in the 1560s.
5) Did you make Shardlake a lawyer deliberately because of your own knowledge, or is the practice of the law now so completely different that your experience was not much help?
It would have been a shame to waste my experience. And the legal world is fascinating. The content of the law has mostly changed but I think legal types (like the endlessly snippy, aggressive and infuriating lawyer Dyrick, featured in Heartstone) are eternal. Interestingly the pointless formalities of civil law that Dyrick loves so are also in some ways eternal, although they received a heavy blow with the excellent Civil justice rules Lord Justice Woolf brought in - only in 1999, when I was still in practice.
6) The name of the characters, from Shardlake himself to Gridiron, Calfhill, Shawms and Hob Gebons amongst others are all unusual names today. Do they come from old records of the times, or are they the result of imagination?
Most – though Shardlake is an invention – are authentic. Whenever I read Tudor social history especially I note down all the – to us, outlandish – names I feel I might be able to use.
7) Your novels have totally, and almost single-handedly, revitalised the ‘historical crime’ genre. How does that make you feel and what do you think of other historical crime fiction very similar to your novels that have appeared since the Shardlake series went ‘meteoric’?
I don’t think I’ve revitalised anything – it was reading excellent historical thriller (Iain Pears comes to mind) in the 90s that made me think there might be a market for Shardlake. Like all genres, there are good bad and indifferent books and always were. In fact I deliberately read mainly outside my own genre – broadens the mind.
8) If you were to write about another time in history, which would it be?
The other peiod I have studied in detail – Britain and Europe 1918-1945.
9) Winter in Madrid was a complete contrast to the Tudor stories. Do you envisage doing another separate story, and if so would you return to Madrid?
Yes, my next book will have a Second World war background but it will be set in England and very different to Winter in Madrid.
10) In a dream scenario who would you like to direct and star in a film/TV adaptation of your books?
(Note to As a BBC adaptation is in the works I would rather not do this one!)
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of all time of a crime/thriller novel?
Primal Fear, starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton, based on William Diehl’s novel.
12) What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?
Innocent Blood, by P.D. James. The only book I’ve stayed up all night to read. I remember being startled to hear the birds singing and realising it was dawn. (then staggering off, red-eyed, to work next morning.)