England is embroiled in extreme political turmoil in 1546, from the hangings of a growing number of heretics to the continuous foreign policy intrigues--not to mention a critical change of perspective in the king’s Privy Council from traditional to radical. Many powerful nobles have found it advantageous to curry the favor of Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who has the ear of a dying Henry VIII. Adding fuel to an already volatile situation, a growing number of London printers turn out incendiary reform tracts that are passed among the commoners. The fine points of religious arguments challenging the teachings of the Church, whether from the Sacramentarians or the Anabaptists, the spreading of radical ideas are too often disseminated as a means to inflame the public: “Religious radicals were often ignorant and naïve when it came to actual political realities.”
A new wing is being constructed for Mary Tudor, the king’s daughter, at Whitehall Palace where the king resides. Queen Catherine Parr
is held in high regard by her royal husband but grows more fearful of the constant stream of accusations against her by Gardiner, rumors that she espouses heretical views. Though it is true that the queen favors reform, she is careful to guard her actions, avoiding any scent of scandal in that regard. Serjeant Matthew Shardlake, involved currently in an expensive but petty legal battle between a sister and brother following their mother’s death, is called to the queen’s private chambers. There Catherine enlists his help in recovering a book she has written, “Lamentations of a Sinner,” that has been stolen from a locked chest in her room. Then a printer with radical leanings is murdered
and a page of Catherine’s writings is found at the site, putting the queen in immediate jeopardy should her work be discovered: “I have constant reminders of past events. I live in fear now… great fear.”
Shardlake is tasked with the recovery of that document, but it is paramount that Matthew be extremely circumspect, enlisting a young man in his employ but forced to keep even his most trusted friend and assistant, Jack Barak, out of the loop. Any breach of confidence has potentially fatal consequences for the queen. With the queen’s badge for identification, the crookbacked Matthew begins his search at the scene of the printer’s murder, assigning current litigation to Barak to oversee. Using the techniques that have proven successful in previous investigations, Shardlake sets about his task, navigating the ins and outs of palace politics, unobtrusive yet keenly observant, reluctant to attract the attention of Henry VIII, who is notoriously fickle in dealing with those who unexpectedly cross his path. In order to efficiently serve the queen, Shardlake is forced to visit the royal apartments, going about his questioning of those privy to the queen’s rooms while acutely aware of the partisan treachery that simmers in the palace.
As in former Shardlake novels, the barrister is at home in many situations, questioning persons of interest and sorting through information, regardless whether he is in Catherine’s chambers, speaking with the victim of a crime in a village, or meeting secretly with those in power to weigh his options in each evolving situation. He has friends in high places, his work made easier by the assistance of a young William Cecil, a member of her majesty’s Learned Council (Cecil’s ambitions leading eventually to most trusted councilor of Elizabeth I), but also serious enemies gleaned from various confrontations in and out of court--powerful men like Privy Councillor Sir Richard Rich and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Bishop Stephen Gardiner.
Lamentation is filled with authentic historical detail, the particulars of London life through the perspective of a barrister conversant with the workings of justice and the complications of politics, especially concerning religious practices at a time when a tentative peace has been reached with Rome after Henry’s historical break. But the true believers on either side of the coin make the final days of Henry’s reign more desperate, religious conflicts creating more than the usual violence both in the streets and the palace. Shardlake understands the price of failure but is shocked at the level of deceit and betrayal behind the theft of “Lamentations of a Sinner.” The barrister suffers more than usual in the unfolding of a plot that is truly Machiavellian, his private life suffering the consequences of an investigation that takes him deep into the machinations of palace politics at a price perhaps too dear to pay.