In this month’s article, Legal Life’s resident crime novel expert, Lesley Kenward suggests some historical crime novels to read.
Reading any work which involves the investigation of Jack the Ripper, for example, is a bit like grasping at smoke; frustrating and ultimately pointless. Where, oh where, was the fingerprint and DNA evidence? Yes, I appreciate that science hadn’t progressed that far by the end of the nineteenth century but an insoluble case is just anathema to the reader of crime fiction – and yes, I know that Jack the Ripper wasn’t a fictional character but my point is that he might as well have been for all we actually know about who he was.
Creators of historical crime fiction have one big advantage over those who were actually charged with the task of investigating the likes of Jack – fictional murderers, settings, witnesses and clues are able to be moulded to a satisfactory finale, a provable solution even in the absence of a DNA slam dunk. The disadvantage, if it can be called that, is that they are not writing about what the reader knows from their modern experience. History can seem dusty and dull from a distance. It is the mark of the gifted writer of historical crime to meld the real and unreal seamlessly into a believable, understandable and, of necessity, well-researched journey into a fascinating past, alive with intrigue and human weakness.
CJ Sansom, in his utterly absorbing Shardlake series, blends well constructed and satisfactorily complex murder onto a richly decorated, historically accurate backdrop in a superbly crafted mix of greed, power, conspiratorial menace and duplicitous secrecy. Give him an ancient Crown Vic instead of a horse and Sansom’s sleuth, the hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, could be the hero of any crime fiction set in the twenty first century – dastardly criminal methods and the scientific means to unravel them may have changed over time but motives and human intuition are constants. The reader is transported back in time to discover that history is, always has been, just people doing what they do.
Sansom creates his murder and mayhem in the reign of Henry VIII where we find day to day machinations sometimes as bloody and terrifying as the crimes Shardlake investigates. Shardlake, himself, moves in influential circles, mixing, often reluctantly, with the great political figures of the mid sixteenth century. He takes his commissions like any PI today into the murky, populous underbelly of the city and retreats to occasional shelter with the few he loves and trusts. The series so far, and I sincerely hope that this is not the end, describes a dark, fascinating world where the “good” guys who request Shardlake’s investigative skills are as likely to be killers as those he is asked to unmask and the terrifying reality in which he operates is exactly that – the reality of the sixteenth century where execution could so swiftly follow popularity that safety and security were luxuries few could guarantee for themselves or their families. Fear and mistrust echo in every exchange. Death stalks rich and poor and the king, the ultimate protector of faith and justice, is often as mercilessly cruel as the malefactors Shardlake pursues.
For the lover of history, CJ Sansom delivers. The streets of London are dirty and stinking and characters are conjured from the foul mud. Religious faith, fanaticism, persecution and fear haunt every chapter. Power gained and power lost is the only currency and keeping your head is far more than the usual advice to see reason. It’s also worth pointing out that, should your memory of classroom Tudor history be lamentably poor, CJ Sansom will give you the great names of history in such a considerably more memorable and riotously colourful way that you will never again be laughed at in public for your miserable grasp of political intrigue in the mid 1500s. Thomas Cromwell takes centre stage in Dissolution and Dark Fire, Thomas Cranmer in Sovereign and Revelation, and Katherine Parr, wife of Henry VIII himself, in Heartstone. These names may be faint echoes from tedious history lessons as you start the series. Believe me – they will be living, fire-breathing and very much alive by the end. And the ordinary people? Struggling on in streets often as mean as any in a contemporary gangland novel. You will remember them all and have an opinion. Sansom can make you love history.
The series is not all history though. While obviously not for the lover of the police procedural – the police force was still a few centuries away – there is a forewarning of global nuclear threat and the struggles for power rival any modern international thriller. For king, read government. For evil, well, just read evil. It is a tribute to CJ Sansom that his themes are timeless while his characters are so universally human that they could be sitting next to you on the bus today as you turn the page.
It’s probably obvious that I am a lover of history but you don’t have to be to become caught up in Shardlake’s London. Read Sansom and see. He writes clever and satisfying crime novels. He creates absorbing and often unusual plots. He writes about the great and the ordinary with equal skill. And there is no frustrating grasping at smoke at the end.