Source of book: Borrowed from the Library
A colleague introduced me to Sansom last year, starting with the first book in the series, Dissolution. I enjoyed that book very much, so I decided to push on to the next.
There is a saying about second efforts in all genres that has a certain amount of truth to it. It isn’t unusual for a second book or album to be a disappointment. If nothing else, the first success was the result of a long effort, while the second is sometimes quickly thrown together to capitalize on the success of the first.
This is definitely not the case with C. J. Sansom. If anything, the second book, Dark Fire, is even better than the first.
Sansom is an English solicitor, sort of (but not exactly) analogous to a transactional lawyer in our United States’ legal system. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake shares this profession - but in the time of Henry VIII. Shardlake is a hunchback, somewhat outside of the approval of society. It is this alienation - and the alienation of several of his associates - that makes him who he is.
While the previous book dealt with a murder committed at a monastery which was being secularized as part of the reforms under Thomas Cromwell (who hires Shardlake to investigate), this mystery is set in London itself. There are two parallel mysteries, in fact. The first is a private case that Shardlake has undertaken: defending a young woman accused of murdering her cousin. The second is another commission from Cromwell with much bigger stakes.
Cromwell has been approached by an alchemist who claims to have rediscovered Dark Fire (aka Greek Fire) in an old monastery. A demonstration is made - successfully - and a time is set to demonstrate for the king himself. But the circumstances are odd, and Cromwell seeks to investigate. Before things can go very far, though, the alchemist is brutally murdered, and all traces of the formula and the Dark Fire disappear.
Throughout the long investigation (the book is nearly 500 pages), it becomes increasingly clear that there are a number of major political figures of the era involved, and that the outcome will determine the fate of England itself.
Sansom has clearly researched his books thoroughly. I did a bit of reading on my own to refresh my memory as to the actual history, and Sansom carefully hews to the known facts whenever the plot involves real events. The dark fire mystery may be fictional, but the players and the fall of Cromwell are most certainly not. Likewise, Sansom put in the time to understand the science behind Greek Fire, both the chemistry and the physics of the delivery mechanism. Equally challenging in this case was to keep the knowledge of the characters limited to that of the 16th Century. Avoiding modern anachronisms is a tough task, but Sansom does his work well.
There is also great skill evident in the historical detail. Whether it is the sights, the sounds, the social issues and arguments, the religious sects, and especially the smells of the city, Sansom brings them to life convincingly. I have yet to detect any errors in any of this - and I care about science and history. It is this attention to detail combined with vivid writing that raises this book above the usual crowd of historical fiction or mystery writing.
The one thing that does strike one as slightly out of place is that Shardlake is a rather modern thinker. Let me hasten to add that this is clearly intentional on the author’s part. Shardlake is both a character, and a stand-in for the author and the reader. Probably an average lawyer of the time wouldn’t have thought in feminist terms or with the same eye to both skepticism and human rights. I mean, the Enlightenment was still a century or more away. But this isn’t as much of a stretch as one might think. Shardlake is an admirer of Erasmus, who himself was far ahead of his time. There is also evidence that a number of intellectuals were already thinking and writing things which would eventually lead to the Enlightenment, so it isn’t unthinkable that others thought the same way, but were unwilling to risk life and property to say them out loud.
In addition to the atmosphere, Sansom has also brought realistic writing to the society itself. Prostitution is (in practice) legal and regulated, women face difficult choices if they become pregnant out of wedlock - and these choices are determined in significant part by wealth. The poor live in deplorable conditions and, like in our own day, the wealthy use their influence to avoid regulation of the slums.
There are a few other things that I thought were interesting about this book. First, Shardlake has a new sidekick. Mark, his original one, eloped to Europe under circumstances that demanded he stay there, so he was obviously not going to be back. I was never a big fan of Mark, though. He was okay, but not a great foil for Shardlake.
Replacing Mark is one of Cromwell’s lackeys, Jack Barak, a rogue of dubious history, with a semi-secret Jewish heritage. (Not good in an era when the Jews had been forcibly expelled from England. Ah, the good old days…) Barak was educated as a child, so he is able to assist in the legal matters, but he later joined the underworld, so his real talents are, well, more physical. At the outset, the two of them do not get along, each suspicious of the other (for good reason) and at odds over both social niceties and social issues. Shardlake, after all, has never known true poverty. He may be compassionate, but he doesn’t really get the experience of the side. Barak, on the other hand, loathes the nobility, and has a tendency to forget his manners at the worst time. This all makes for a nice bit of frisson when they are forced to rely on each other to solve the mystery - and indeed to stay alive.
Like Dissolution, Dark Fire explores the key issue of the day in England: whence Church and State? Henry VIII initially made common cause with the reformer Thomas Cromwell in persecuting both Catholics and Non-conformists. Cromwell was disgustingly bloody - a fact that makes Shardlake uncomfortable even as he must submit to Cromwell. This eventually leads Shardlake to become disillusioned with the Reformist cause, and increasingly question his faith. Toward the end of the book, Shardlake has a conversation with Guy, a Catholic moorish apothecary we meet in the first book - a man who is lying low trying to live his life without being persecuted for his differences: black skin, African (and Muslim) origin, and forbidden religion.
‘Why does faith bring out the worst in so many, Guy?’ I blurted out. ‘How is it that it can turn men, papist and reformer both, into brutes?’
‘Man is an angry, savage being. Sometimes faith becomes an excuse for battle. It is no real faith then. In justifying their positions in the name of God, men silence God.’
‘But have the comfortable belief that, having read the Bible and prayed, they cannot be wrong.’
‘I fear so.’
This is a conversation that has played out in my head over the last few years, as I see my own tribe gearing up for jihad against all who believe differently, Christian, Atheist, or Muslim.
Many of the best conversations (in both books) come between Shardlake and Guy. They are both “outsiders,” so to speak, and both have modern sensibilities. And both have a love for truth and goodness that few of their contemporaries - who grasp for political power and wealth at any cost - share. This means that they often are out of step with the times, trying to find their own way by the light they have. As Guy puts it in context with scientific discoveries:
‘I am with those thinkers who consider God means us to uncover the secrets of the earth by the slow, sure path of observation rather than mystical formulae in ancient books.’
Sansom makes it clear that this difference in approach has also led to the problems in religion and statecraft as well. Creed always wins out over human realities in this world of the past. And sometimes too often in our own as well.
While not too many major characters in each book are female - the first book is set in a monastery and the second involves high intrigue - Sansom make the most of the characters he does employ. Even the minor female characters are complex and have histories that make their actions understandable. As in any era, some are expressly feminist, as in Lady Honor, who greatly enjoys the freedom that her wealthy widowhood brings. Others seek to gratify their ambition through carefully orchestrating their descendents’ social rise, as Mrs. Wentworth does - at any price.
The author also notes one of the interesting results of the Protestant Reformation. Often forgotten in any discussion of that history is that it was the beginning of the loss of authority for institutions in general. With Martin Luther and the rest, the shocking idea that the average (literate) person could and should read and interpret the Bible without depending on the experts of the priesthood - that man needed no mediator to access God - led eventually to the collapse of church authority. In the setting of these books, the State and the Church are struggling to figure out how to function when non-conformists insist on doing and believing as they wish, without granting political loyalty to a particular faction.
This crumbling of authority led to the Enlightenment, of course, in which interpretation of, well, nearly everything, became divorced from dogma. Instead, science, reason, and investigation became the new method for determining truth. I won’t spend too much time on the effect this had on science, human rights, and so on.
I do want to mention that this idea also led inevitably to feminism. After all, if the average person could interpret the Bible and determine his own actions based on his conscience and intellect, why couldn’t women do the same? This didn’t necessarily go over well with everyone. As one traditionalist lawyer says, “Not just apprentices. Even silly little women fancy they can read the Bible now and understand God’s Word.” The same later brags that he has never read the Bible, and never will.
But of course, once you let women think for themselves, they might want to vote, control their own money, determine their own destiny.
Just a couple more little tidbits that should be noted. First, as I am not a fashion mavin, I had to look up “farthingale.” Thank goodness I never had to wear one. Forget petticoats. How about a wicker frame to carry around with you under your dress? Yikes.
A reminder that today's fashions aren't nearly as silly as those of the past.
I’ll end with this one. Early in the book, Shardlake mentions this annoying case he has, where the opposing party...well, I’ll let him describe the sort of person all of us lawyers know all too well:
[H]e was one of those maddening rogues whom lawyers encounter, who take perverse pleasure in spending time and money on uncertain cases rather than admitting defeat and making proper remedy like civilized men.
Dark Fire can be heartily recommended for anyone who loves a good mystery, a good historical novel, or just history and good writing in general.