Summer means different things to different people. For academics, the end of grading means a new opportunity for pleasure reading. My beach-reading recommendation for the relaxing law professor is C.J. Sansom’s historical mysteries: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, and Revelation.
The novels are set in the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign, after the break from Rome. It’s a world of religious reformation, enormous new wealth, painful social dislocations, and ugly corruption. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a reform-minded protestant, a skilled lawyer, and a sour-tempered “crookback.” He starts in the service of Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, but the dark deeds he witnesses lead Shardlake to try to pull a Jack Goldsmith: to return to private life while keeping both his principles and his loyalties intact.
The first great pleasure of the Shardlake mysteries is that they do excellently what any mystery should do: take the reader inside the distinctive forms of corruption of a particular time and place. Shardlake is caught up in conspiracies that pit bad people against worse ones. There’re money and power everywhere for the taking, and Shardlake faces some especially unscrupulous attempts to seize both. Sansom is particularly good at working the old multiple-plots magic: more than one person is up to something, and part of the fun is trying to figure out which crime a given clue relates to.
Even better, though, is Sansom’s treatment of Shardlake himself. He’s a wholly credible lawyer. The cases he handles ring true with what I know of Tudor legal history (this is especially telling, because it would have been all to easy to fudge the legal details). He also solves cases like a lawyer: splitting his time between careful book research and dogged cross-examination. Shardlake isn’t a Holmesian genius; he’s just a sharp, diligent lawyer who trudges back and forth from one witness to another, looking for inconsistencies and working them relentlessly. His physical deformity also contributes to his interestingly complex personality and narrative voice: cranky, a little self-pitying, and determined to look beyond appearances. The books are bleak affairs, but reading them is an absolute joy.