The Matthew Shardlake Series by C.J. Sansom

by Sarah on April 17, 2010 · 4 comments

One of my absolute favourite series is C.J. Sansom’s excellent Tudor mystery series featuring the hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. Sansom blends rich historical detail with brilliant characterization and compelling storylines.

I adore the complex character of Shardlake. He starts the series as a staunch supporter of the Reformation but gradually becomes disillusioned with the politics and greed behind it. In spite of his disability, Shardlake has enjoyed success as a lawyer, mainly through forming political alliances which he sometimes lives to regret. Nonetheless, the prejudice and disdain which he has to endure on a daily basis are painful to read about.

C.J. Sansom doesn’t paint a rosy picture of conditions in Tudor England, and pulls no punches in his depiction of historical figures. I still have vivid memories of his description of the smell of King Henry VIII’s gouty leg!

Unlike many of the historical mystery series which I follow, there isn’t a continuing romantic story arc, unless you count one involving secondary characters. Nevertheless, I think the books have a strong crossover appeal for readers of historical fiction, and also fans of historical romance which doesn’t skimp on period detail.

For anyone not familiar with the books, I’m going to provide a list of titles, a blurb for the first one (I’m not providing blurbs for subsequent books as they contain potential series spoilers), plus the grades I awarded them. The fourth book was published in 2008, well before I started this blog, so I haven’t reviewed any of them here. The fifth book is called Heartstone and it will be released in September 2010.


1. Dissolution (2003) by C.J. SansomMy Grade: A-

Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and the country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. Under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: the monasteries are to be dissolved.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege – a black cockerel sacrificed on the alter, and the disappearance of Scarnsea’s Great Relic.

Dr Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell into this atmosphere of treachery and death. But Shardlake’s investigation soon forces him to question everything he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes…

2. Dark Fire (2004) – My Grade: A

3. Sovereign (2006) – My Grade: B+

4. Revelation (2008) – My Grade: A-

5. Heartstone (due out in September 2010)

Have you read these books? If so, what did you think of them?


Ben Hunt April 17, 2010 at 10:56

These really are terrific books – have enjoyed all of them and really looking forward to Heartstone.

Headline has an Elizabethan crimes novel coming soon, which should be interestingtoo.

Trish April 17, 2010 at 12:12

I have very much enjoyed the first four books in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series and am really looking forward to ‘Heartstone’. The books tick all the boxes for me – character driven stories, compelling page-turning narrative, a hugely sympathetic hero in Matthew Shardlake, historical accuracy that is deftly handled and presented with vivid detail and an imaginative twist that brings us right into heart of Tudor times.

heidenkind April 19, 2010 at 05:17

I haven’t even heard of this series, but it sounds very intriguing.

Sarah April 19, 2010 at 16:01

@Ben Hunt: An Elizabethan mystery? That sounds intriguing!

@Trish: I also enjoyed C.J. Sansom’s non-Tudor book, Winter in Madrid. Have you read that one? It’s not quite as good as the Shardlake series but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

@heidenkind: It’s really good. I think you might like it.

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