Author Recommendation: C.J. Sansom - Newsletter

Wednesday Jul 27 2011

Historical mysteries have in recent years become one of the principal staples of the crime fiction genre. There is now at least one series on virtually every historical period, and on some eras, such as the British medieval period, there is actually serious competition among four or five entrants. Writing a good historical mystery is not as easy as it may seem at first glance. There are a number of potential pitfalls. Having the historical narrative right is not by itself enough. Also essential is sufficient background historical detail to provide a sense of verisimilitude, giving the reader confidence in the writer’s control of the material. A writer about Templar knights had better have command over the nuts and bolts of armour and weaponry, for example, as well as a real understanding of the religious politics of his or her era. Then there is the question of the language of the dialogue. To write dialogue in the modern vernacular is to risk rejection as unhistorical; to write dialogue too close to the period may produce something virtually incomprehensible. And then there is the plotting of the mystery, a place where many writers of historical crime fiction really fall down. Keeping all the balls in the air at the same time is no easy juggling act, and most writers in the genre fall down in at least one of the necessary areas. To our mind, the most successful of recent practitioners of historical crime fiction is the British writer C.J. Sansom, author of five volumes featuring the crippled hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who plies his trade in the England of Henry VIII. The background of Shardlake’s detecting is the complex period of the Tudor Reformation, beginning in 1537 with the dissolution of the monasteries and following through Henry’s marital disasters and attempts to remake the English church. The king himself is a distant and malevolent force. Shardlake works for Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and Queen Catherine Parr, attempting to solve crimes for his clients/superiors while maneuvering through the thickets of both royal and ecclesiastical politics. The novel introducing him, Dissolution, puts him in a classic closed-universe at a Benedictine monastery. Sansom has a genius for presenting thick historical detail in a palatable form, and his plotting is more careful than is usually the case in this genre. The reader, moreover, is given a real sense of the complexities of the English Reformation and of the difficulties of allegiance in a fast-breaking transformational period. The five novels have thus far appeared in hardcover and trade paper only, and turn up in used copies only infrequently.  They are: Dissolution (2003), Dark Fire (2004), Sovereign (2006), Revelation (2008), and Heartstone (2010).

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