It is 1537 and the religious reforms are well underway under King Henry’s rule. Lord Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Chief Minister, is sending his men out to force the Monastories in Britain to surrender to his rule – and to take them down forcibly if they refuse.
However, in Scarnsea Monastery, commissioner Robin Singleton has been murdered while trying to force the surrender of the premises. Matthew Shardlake is Thomas Cromwell’s commissioner sent to Scarnsea to uncover who murdered Singleton. Accompanied by his loyal employee Mark Poer, Shardlake travels to Scarnsea and starts to uncover a web of lies and corruption, where there are more questions than answers and everybody is under suspicion.
As Shardlake investigates, he finds himself not only battling to discover the truth about how and why Singleton dies, but also starting to question all the beliefs which he has held so dear.
I thought this was a fascinating and enthralling book. The story is satisfyingly complex, but not so much so that it is difficult to follow.
The book is told from Shardlake’s point of view and he is a likeable and engaging narrator. World-weary but determined to be fair, his patterns of thought and his actions are entirely believeable. The extended cast of characters – including Mark Poer and various Monks – is also believeable, with each character having their own distinct personality. As is human nature, Shardlake is drawn to certain members of the Monastery more than others, but he is never able to completely trust any of them, and has to therefore keep some emotional distance, which gets hard at times.
The writing is equally descriptive and pacy. As most of the book takes place at the isolated Monastery, there is a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout, which adds to the mystery surrounding Singleton’s death. The mystery itself is engaging and for most of the book I had no idea who was guilty, and probably suspected almost every character at some point.
Also captured well is the time in which the book is set. Henry VIII is an invisible and intimidating presence throughout and the tension felt at the reforms, coupled with people’s fear that nobody is safe, was vividly brought to life.
Another interesting aspect of Shardlake’s character was the way that he started to grow cynical about his own religious beliefs – and more specifically the acts being carried out in the name of that religion. It will be interesting to see how this is developed in further books in this series.
Is it perfect? Not quite – I felt that the final denouement was perhaps a little too sudden. However, I liked the fact that I was kept guessing throughout.
I would highly recommend this book to fans of Tudor fiction and anyone who likes crime fiction from any period.