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C. J. Sansom

Author of Dissolution

25+ Works 17,186 Members 725 Reviews 81 Favorited

About the Author

Christopher John "C.J." Sansom is a British writer of crime novels. He was born in 1952 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was educated at the University of Birmingham, where he earned a B. A. and a PhD in History. He practiced law, before quitting to work full-time as a writer. He currently lives in show more Sussex, England. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Disambiguation Notice:

Also writes as the Medieval Murderers with Ian Morson, Michael Jecks, Karen Maitland, Susanna Gregory, Philip Gooden and Bernard Knight


Works by C. J. Sansom

Associated Works


16th century (380) alternate history (92) audiobook (70) British (126) crime (452) crime fiction (162) detective (121) ebook (162) England (553) espionage (76) fiction (1,798) Henry VIII (339) historical (682) historical fiction (1,542) historical mystery (371) historical novel (105) history (188) Kindle (144) lawyers (95) library (72) London (129) Matthew Shardlake (266) murder (146) mystery (1,217) novel (208) read (184) Reformation (108) religion (74) series (122) Shardlake (200) Spain (155) Spanish Civil War (112) thriller (128) to-read (819) Tudor (454) Tudor England (115) Tudors (135) UK (73) unread (69) WWII (133)

Common Knowledge

Legal name
Sansom, Christopher John
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Places of residence
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Sussex, England, UK
University of Birmingham (BA, PhD|History)
crime novelist
Awards and honors
Waterstones 25 Authors for the Future (2007)
Antony Topping (Greene & Heaton)
Short biography
Lives in Sussex
Disambiguation notice
Also writes as the Medieval Murderers with Ian Morson, Michael Jecks, Karen Maitland, Susanna Gregory, Philip Gooden and Bernard Knight



In volume 4 of the series, Shardlake has found some contentment in his job as Sergeant, senior lawyer, at the court dealing with law cases affecting ordinary people. But the violent death of someone close to him draws him into another murder investigation, and also drags him into the religious and political conflicts of the declining years of Henry VIII's reign.

Alongside this, Shardlake is also representing the interests of Adam, a young man who is seriously disturbed and is confined in the famous mental hospital, Bedlam. Despite its inadequacy, Adam is safer being held there, given the climate in London where Bishop Bonner has already had two young men burned at the stake for heresy. Both Shardlake and Adam's parents are concerned that Adam's ravings, influenced as they are by his background in the reformist religion (which we would now call the Puritan wing of the Protestant community), will put him in danger, especially since Bonner has launched another crackdown.

Interwoven with this are various personal issues, with the possibility of a renewed relationship with an old flame, and stresses on Shardlake's close friendship with Guy, the moorish doctor. His sidekick Barak is having marital difficulties, adding to the general air of anxiety. And to complicate matters, the murder investigation must be kept secret, given the sensitive connection with Catherine Part, whom the king is now courting.

This was a fascinating story, enhanced by the personal issues affecting Shardlake. I thoroughly enjoyed it and take pleasure in awarding a well deserved 5 stars.
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kitsune_reader | 64 other reviews | Nov 23, 2023 |
After jumping ahead and reading a couple of later books in this series, managed to get this earlier volume which I have enjoyed. In this Matthew Shardlake, lawyer, and his clerk/bodyguard/sidekick Jack Barak are in York as part of the King's progress to the North. The political situation is tense following a second conspiracy discovered and crushed, only five years after the Pilgrimage of Grace which Henry VIII was only able to subdue by deceit and treachery. Shardlake is part of the legal team who are meant to be hearing petitions and weeding out the unsuitable ones, the Progress being meant to show the King's justice as well as being an opportunity to cow the northern nobles.

Barak finds meaningful romance for the first time when he meets Tamasin who is working as a sweetmeat maker for Queen Catherine. But things take a sinister turn when a glazier, who is removing the stained glass windows from the decommissioned abbey church in the walled enclosure that is to be the King's base in York, is killed - and it soon transpires that not only has he been murdered but that he seems to be mixed up in the recently put-down conspiracy. For it seems that some members have managed to evade the authorities.

As usual this is a page-turner with various attempts on Shardlake's life, against a complex interweaving of Tudor politics, religion and social castes. I did work out some elements of the mystery, as I had seen the documentary which the author refers to in his endnote, but didn't work out all the elements of who had done what. I did though work out who one of the villains had to be, but I still found the denouement effective and saddening. The only weakness in the book, which holds it back from 5 stars, is that the author has a few "ticks" which really jumped out and kept taking me out of the story. People constantly take a deep breath - Shardlake himself does this 5 or 6 times in one scene. And there were a few continuity errors, such as having a character stand up twice about two paragraphs apart. But it still merits a well-deserved 4 stars.
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kitsune_reader | 89 other reviews | Nov 23, 2023 |
After reading books 1, 5 and 6 of this series I managed to obtain this earlier volume. It is interesting to see in this book certain aspects of Shardlake's character and situation being set up which have borne fruit in later volumes. And also here is the first example of the structure I have seen in the later books where Shardlake has to juggle two cases at once.

The story starts when a man called Joseph engages Shardlake to help in the case of his accused niece Elizabeth who, following the death of both parents, had moved to the household of his wealthy younger brother and family. Joseph believes Elizabeth was unhappy there, but since she was accused of pushing the son of the household, Ralph, into a disused well in the garden, she has not spoken a word, either to refute the accusations of Ralph's sisters or to plead not guilty in court. At that time, defendants in criminal cases were not represented by lawyers and had to undertake their own defence, but they were entitled to take legal advice and Joseph hopes Shardlake can persuade Elizabeth to talk. Unfortunately, he also encounters a wall of silence from Elizabeth who has now been moved to a dirty, unhealthy prison where she is mistreated by the gaolers. Meanwhile, the cheap pamphlets calling her a child murderer being sold on London's streets means she has been prejudged, even if she does plead - and if she doesn't, she will be pressed under heavy weights until she dies. (I was aware of some of this background, as I knew that Giles Corey, one of the accused in the later Salem witch trials, was pressed to death because he refused to plead, since it prevented the authorities from confiscating his property if he was condemned, leaving his family in poverty.)

Into this dire situation falls a ray of hope when a man called Barak approaches Shardlake with a commission from Lord Cromwell. In return for a stay of Elizabeth's case, giving Shardlake more time to investigate and perhaps uncover the real culprit, Cromwell wants Shardlake to investigate a deadly and secret matter: that of Greek Fire. This substance, known to the citizens of Byzantium (now fallen) and used with devastating effect by them on enemy ships, is reputed to have been rediscovered, and its use demonstrated to Cromwell who has promised King Henry a demonstration of his own. It might save Cromwell's life, since the King has been increasingly hostile following the failure of his marriage to Anne of Cleeves, a marriage which Cromwell had arranged for political reasons. Cromwell's enemies are circling like vultures, but if he can show the King a potent new weapon against his enemies, France and Spain, he can get back into Henry's good books. The problem is, the two men who claimed to have made Greek Fire have now disappeared and just twelve days remain to find them.

This is an interesting tale of two interwoven cases. That of Greek Fire soon draws Shardlake into great danger, with multiple attempts being made on his life by assassins, who are eliminating anyone who knows about the substance. He also comes into conflict with the great of the land, who are unfortunately Cromwell's enemies and fast becoming his enemies too. Meanwhile, he must interview anyone who knew about it, including intermediaries who were used initially to pass on information of its existence from the supposed makers to Cromwell. One of these is a woman of the nobility to whom Shardlake finds himself increasingly drawn. She seems to return his regard, despite his disability which, in an age when physical appearance was often regarded as an indication of moral character, ensures a regular barrage of insults from people he meets throughout the book.

Guy, the ex-monk and physician, whom Shardlake met in book 1 of the series, returns as a friend, although he is having to practice as an apothecary, a trade which Shardlake helped him to set up in when his race barred him from practicing as a doctor (Guy is a Moor, originally from Spain). Their friendship begins to suffer as Shardlake takes risks, endangering others such as Barak as well as himself. When he secretly discloses his mission for Cromwell in order to consult Guy on its technical aspects, he creates more friction between them since Guy believes that the secret of such a weapon should remain lost. This becomes a trend in later books, as does Shardlake's tendency to develop unsuitable romantic notions about women who are, in that period of history, far above his social status and therefore unattainable. It was also interesting to see the beginning of his relationship with Barak, having seen how it develops in books 4 and 5. Barak is an interesting character, a real rough diamond of the streets from a humble family who yet had received the rudiments of an education which, for boys of that time, included a knowledge of Latin.

As ever, the author manages to flesh out even the minor characters of the book, so that the fate of a horse provides a poignant moment. And despite knowing that Cromwell was responsible for terrible crimes, including the false accusation and execution of Anne Boleyn and her brother and associates, undertaken purely to save his own skin, there is yet a touch of sympathy in his portrayal without lessening the terrifying effect he has on those around him. Especially since the alternatives to Cromwell, who was motivated to work for religious and social reform, include sadists such as the Duke of Norfolk and those who, like Richard Rich, worked only to line their own pockets. There is also the alternative viewpoint of Barak who, owing his rescue from execution for stealing to Cromwell, is totally loyal to him.

A strong thread throughout is the ongoing religious controversy in Tudor England. Here is the beginning of the sense of oppression which comes to overhang the later books - a person close to Shardlake dares to speak out and earns punishment in the shape of a fine and the need to make a public apology. But already there is mention of heretics being burned. There is also plenty of suspense and action in the story, with even the investigation into Elizabeth's case drawing Shardlake and Barak into danger. I did find though that there was quite a lot of repetitive going from place to place seeking particular characters, and rather a lot about Greek Fire which in itself I didn't find that interesting (as already having read of it I suspected it was going to need ingredients that would never be available in Tudor England. So I would rate this as a strong 4 star read, not quite as good as Lamentation which is my favourite so far.
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kitsune_reader | 111 other reviews | Nov 23, 2023 |
After enjoying book 1 in this series and not having volumes 2 - 4 to hand, I started reading this volume out of order. It is set in 1544 at a time when Henry VIII has involved England in a vainglorious war with France, impoverishing the country and devaluing the currency with increasingly serious effects on ordinary people and especially the poor. Meanwhile, the landowners are looking to enclose village common lands and further worsen rural poverty.

Against this background, Matthew Shardlake, the barrister protagonist of the series, is involved in two new cases. One he takes on at the request of Queen Catherine Parr, to investigate the apparent suicide of the son of an old womanservant of hers, which seems to have been in reaction to a horrifying discovery he had apparently made about an ex-pupil of his. Two children, Hugh and Emma, were orphaned and their wardship was bought through the corrupt Court of Wards by a prosperous man who has retired to the country and adapted the old priory he bought, after the Dissolution of the monasteries, into a comfortable home. It seems, however, that he might have been in debt and has bought the children's wardship so that he can illegally sell much of the timber cut from their lands, with the connivance of certain corrupt officials. Not content with that, he is also trying to enclose the woodland belonging to local villagers which adjoins his land.

The other case Shardlake assumes on behalf of a woman he knows who is incarcerated in the Bedlam, the hospital for the mentally ill - known as 'mad' in his time. The woman has agarophobia, but possibly has developed other issues after living there for twenty-some years following certain traumatic events. She has developed an unreciprocated love for Shardlake who, out of a sense of guilt that he cannot return it and also desirous of decreasing her dependence on his visits, starts to investigate the events which led to her internment there, even though she is not keen for him to do so. He is able to combine the two cases, as the place where she used to live is on the way to the house where the wealthy man lives and the surviving ward, the sister having died of smallpox. The trouble is, that house is not far from Portsmouth where the French are imminently expected to invade.

In this novel, Shardlake seems more driven and one-track-minded in his struggle to arrive at the truth, to the despair of Barak, a character who did not appear in book 1, but is a street wise and intelligent man torn between his regard for Shardlake and his concern about his wife back in London, who is far advanced in pregnancy. Shardlake's one man crusade for the truth leads him and sometimes Barak into danger, and threatens to bring him into collision with some of the most ruthless and powerful men in the Kingdom, including men he has apparently made enemies of in previous books. There is also the danger that he will encounter the King on his repeated visits to Portsmouth, as it seems he upset Henry in a previous volume, and Henry is noted for his unforgiving nature and vindictiveness.

As soon as it became clear when this story was set I did have a good idea of at least one major disaster that would occur as the book unfolded having prior knowledge of the pride of Henry's fleet, the Mary Rose, and what happened to it . It is a measure of the author's successful creation of minor characters that I thought 'oh no' when friends of Shardlake's are assigned to that location. I also did not guess the major twist in the main case until the point where Shardlake's own realisation occurs. One aspect I liked is that the character of Guy, the physician monk from volume 1 who was the only person Shardlake liked and respected in that story, has become an old friend and is now a doctor.

I did find Shardlake a little too obsessive in this, to the point of monomania, repeatedly putting himself and others into danger. Also, although I am aware that characters in historical novels cannot really speak as they would have at the time, as it would be very difficult for a modern audience to understand, the use of certain anacronisms such as 'lunch' do tend to jolt me out of the story. But otherwise it was an enjoyable read which I rate at 4 stars.
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kitsune_reader | 67 other reviews | Nov 23, 2023 |



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