Book Review: Tudor Mysteries

The Matthew Shardlake mysteries, under Henry VIII, by C. J. Sansom
Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and Heartstone
The Giordano Bruno mysteries, under Elizabeth I, by S. J. Parris
Heresy, Prophecy and Sacrilege
Matthew Shardlake is a hunch-backed lawyer, who initially carries out investigations for King Henry’s ruthless Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. After Cromwell’s fall, Shardlake investigates mysteries which arise from his lawyer’s work in the tangled and corrupt legal system of Tudor England.
These investigations take Shardlake across England during the turbulent period after the start of the Protestant Reformation under Henry VIII. During this time he becomes embroiled in the dissolution of the monasteries, the massive changes to the state church and even in the changing fortunes of Henry’s queens, as he tries to solve a number of mysteries, involving murder and even treason.
Giordano Bruno is a radical philosopher and scientist, and an excommunicated Italian monk. Bruno resides in Elizabeth’s England, safe from the Holy Roman Inquisition, which is not happy with his philosophical views and published works. However, as a foreigner, and a Catholic as well, he is in a delicate position, and he cannot afford to antagonise his English hosts. He is recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s Chief Minister and spymaster.
Bruno investigates murders and treasonous plots for Walsingham. These investigations involve the underground Catholic community in England at the time and intricate plots against Elizabeth by both English and foreign enemies.
Both of these “detectives” are outsiders, either by appearance or nationality. Their investigations often open up matters which influential and dangerous people do not want disturbed, so they place themselves at great risk. While they are often given “official” (usually temporary) positions of authority to aid their investigations, this does not guarantee their safety. Plus they often find themselves under threat by their own masters, to solve their cases by deadlines, or face sanctions, or worse. Tudor threats definitely had a sharp edge to them.
In this way our intrepid Tudor age detectives carry on the great tradition of crime detectives throughout the ages: outwitting authority to solve a mystery, at great risk to themselves, and often at the end with no thanks from their bosses. They are often only left with the satisfaction of knowing that they solved the mystery and sometimes helped some of the less powerful in society either get justice or to escape from injustice. That and they still have their heads at the end of each book!
They are also constrained by the Tudor period. No CSI for these investigators. So clues have to be obvious and logical. This is where the higher education of a lawyer and a scientist aid them as they search for evidence to solve their mysteries. They also call on some knowledgeable helpers. Shardlake befriends an ex-monk apothecary, and Bruno is friends with John Dee, the Queen’s astrologer, a noted scientist of his day.
Good historical fiction emphasises the uncertainty of life - to convince the reader that nothing is certain or inevitable, and that the characters don’t know what is to occur next. Both authors do this very well in their Tudor England, using historical plots and intrigues in their story lines. The period is handled very well in both series, with rich details and descriptive touches. The books are atmospheric, with a strong sense of place.
Shardlake’s England is quite bleak, as perhaps would be the view of a man whose body is considered monstrous by many, and who experiences first-hand the depredations of the rule of the tyrant Henry VIII. Bruno’s view of his period is a bit more optimistic, befitting the image of the Elizabethan Age, although he is involved with the seamier side of society.
These mysteries are complex and the plots are well paced. Nothing is too obvious, with lots of suspects, as well as red-herrings. Of course historic characters and events figure largely in all the books, and are often woven into the story lines. These are two good series for those who like realistic historic fiction, but who also appreciate a good traditional who-dunnit mystery story.

Glenn Hogue