Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom

Title: Dark Fire
Author: C.J. Sansom
ISBN:  0670033723
Publisher: Viking, 2005
Hardcover, 502 pages
Genre: Historical mystery, #2 Matthew Shardlake mystery
Rating: A
Source: Purchased from Bookcloseouts.

First Line: I had left my house in Chancery Lane early, to go to the Guildhall to discuss a case in which I was acting for the City Council.

Lawyer Matthew Shardlake may have too many irons in the fire. His scribe can't seem to do anything right, and not having the documents he needs when he needs them makes Shardlake grumpy. A friend's young niece has been accused of murder and is facing a death sentence. Even though the young girl refuses to speak, after visiting her in prison,Matthew believes she's innocent. However, before he can mount any sort of defense for her, Henry VIII's vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, postpones the trial in order for Shardlake to track down a cache of and the recipe for "dark fire"-- the liquid weapon of mass destruction dating from the time of the Greeks-- that Cromwell has promised to a very irritable king.

With the help of one of Cromwell's trusted servants, Shardlake finds himself traveling all over London tracking down clues-- interviewing alchemists, aristocrats and lawyers alike. Not only that-- he also finds himself trying to avoid the assassins who seem intent on killing everyone who's ever heard of the elusive "dark fire".

I read the first book in this series shortly after it was published and for the most part I loved it. The only real quibble I had was that the main character, Matthew Shardlake, whined too much about his hunchback keeping him from scoring with the babe of his choice. Yes, his affliction would be a tough one to bear, especially during that era, but I come from a long line of people who do not believe in whining.  (And from their devotion to that rule, I have to believe that it's been in place for a few centuries.) Be that as it may, Shardlake scarcely whines at all in Dark Fire, and I appreciated that.

Shardlake is a fully fleshed character. He's a sharp, intelligent lawyer. He can circumnavigate the dangerous circles that do the king's bidding. He's a genuinely caring person-- even though he's blind to those around him at times.

The magic starts to happen when a character like Shardlake is put in charge of solving two very complicated puzzles in the fantastically rich and treacherous tapestry of Henry VIII's London. Sansom's character is a lawyer with his normal caseload, but he's also worked for the government during the dissolution of the monasteries and in other projects for the king. Shardlake can ride through the streets of London and see how the city has changed. He can tell us of these changes-- and the reasons for them-- without it sounding like a history lesson. He's merely commenting on the passing scenery. If you're not familiar with Tudor England, you're learning and enjoying; if you are familiar with it, you sigh with satisfaction and sink deeper into the story.

Although this is the second book in this series, you don't need to read the first to be able to make sense of everything in Dark Fire. So... if you enjoy rich, meaty, multi-layered historical mysteries with excellent characterization and plotting, by all means make the acquaintance of Matthew Shardlake!


  1. Cathy - Thanks for this review. I really enjoy a well-written historical mystery, and this one certainly seems like it.

  2. Margot-- The author has a degree in history, so he knows his stuff (and he also knows how to write)!

    Barbara-- It is!

  3. Glad to hear the character improved from book one to book two. That's always a plus.

  4. Kris-- He was an excellent character in book one except for all that whining. I'm so glad I decided to read this next book in the series. Now I can continue without cringing! LOL


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