Sansomís Matthew Shardlake mysteries are set in an historical context - in
Revelation, the waning years of the reign of Henry VIII, his dynasty yielding two daughters and one son by Jane Seymour. Soon to take sixth wife Catherine Parr, Henry has not yet won his new love over, uncharacteristically patient as Catherine waffles in her decision. Perhaps Thomas Seymour, a staunch supporter, has turned Parrís head as the young woman faces yet another marriage with an old man. Certainly Henry has seen better days, his health rapidly deteriorating by 1544.
Even more disturbing since his break from the Church of Rome is the current religious conflict in England, London divided between radical and conservative parishes. Thomas Cranmer is Archbishop of Canterbury but feels threatened by Bishop Bonner, an arch-conservative who seeks to unseat Cranmer. The radicals cling to the Bible, trusting in Godís will as specifically ordained in that book rather than promoting the concept of free will.
The fanatic atmosphere is especially troubling when solicitor Shardlakeís dear friend Roger Elliard is gruesomely murdered in the fountain outside his residence, one of a number of killings fashioned after the vials of wrath in the Book of Revelation. Matthew promises Elliardís widow that he will do all in his power to bring the murderer to justice.
In pursuit of the killer, Shardlake draws uncomfortably close to power as more information surfaces regarding a shocking progression of linked assaults: ďThese are deep waters. Politics and madness.Ē
Taken into Cranmerís confidence, Shardlake finds himself in an unenviable position, but one he must accept if he is to find Rogerís killer. Burned badly once before by proximity to the king, Matthew has no desire to dabble in politics, although expedience demands he must cooperate with certain powerful men to achieve his primary goal. It is this perplexing ambiguity of belief and action that Sansom so successfully navigates, the value and danger of power so close to the king.
Besides Elliardís death, there is the matter of young Adam Kite, a reformist obsessed with the nature of salvation and the certainty that his transgressions have guaranteed he cannot be counted among the saved, as decreed by the reformists. Sent to Bedlam, Adamís plight, though distracting for Shardlake and his man Barak, is an integral part of the authorís dense landscape.
This is a mystery steeped in fanaticism, the warring religious factions that dominate Henryís later years and the rampant social injustices wherein the poor suffer for their circumstances. Their very poverty feeds the penchant for extreme religious beliefs as a distraction from reality.
Sansom mixes an outrageous series of deaths with the frustrating investigation of a group of men who must keep the crimes from the public and the attention of the king, the ultimate plot frightening in its potential to reach the throne via Catherine Parr. Racing against time, Shardlake desperately balances disparate interests, drawn ever deeper into the emotional morass of a troubled man. A powerful denouement leaves everyone, including Shardlake, gasping.