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Revelation: A Matthew Shardlake Mystery    by C. J. Sansom order for
by C. J. Sansom
Order:  USA  Can
Viking, 2009 (2009)
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Here is a great new historical mystery from the author of Winter in Madrid and the Matthew Shardlake mysteries (Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign). Readers of Revelation - the latest installment in the exemplary Shardlake series - are returned to a not-so-merry-old England during the tumultuous reign of the dangerously unpredictable serial-bridegroom Henry VIII.

The narrator of Revelation, Matthew Shardlake, is a graying 40-year-old barrister at Lincoln's Inn. As a melancholic and self-conscious man with a deformed back, Shardlake's deepening facial lines underscore his deepening and increasingly hazardous doubts about religious faith. Profoundly affected by the world around him in 1543, Shardlake sees London as 'an unhappy city' that is 'full of both beggars and fanatics.' England, after all, has become a country ruled by a monarch notorious for his marriages and his unique method of dispatching useless wives, and has become a 'mad and furious' country that is dominated by conflict, prejudices, repression, radicalism, and - adding to the simmering cauldron of difficulties - apocalyptic fears.

It is in this bleak environment that Shardlake is drawn into several cases - one case involving the 'frantic and lewd behavior' of a youthful religious fanatic who is being detained in Bedlam, that grotesque asylum where 'the groans and shrieks can be heard across the streets, making folk scurry by,' and another case involving the murder of Shardlake's friend, a foul deed suggesting 'something truly dark and terrible' is besieging the increasingly dangerous streets of London. In fact, even as Henry VIII is poised to marry again (this time to the recently widowed Lady Catherine Parr), a serial murderer who might have political connections follows a plan apparently laid out in Biblical prophecy.

As Revelation moves briskly along as an exquisitely detailed and thoroughly entertaining historical mystery, readers will be fascinated by barrister Shardlake's indefatigable inquiries and harrowing adventures. More particularly, Henry VIII's England, as skillfully rendered by C. J. Sansom, a former lawyer with a Ph.D. in history, emerges as the setting of a cautionary 16th century tale that speaks to us in our own times about the volatile collisions between extreme positions held by people involved in politics and by people whose lives are dominated by religion.

Revelation may be Sansom's strongest novel yet in the already distinguished series, and readers looking for a pitch-perfect historical novel will not be disappointed.

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