Mysteries & Morals: The Historical Fiction of C. J. Sansom

Article excerpt

LUPUS EST HOMO HOMINI (man is wolf to man) is a declaration first made by the Roman playwright Plautus (254-184 BC) and repeated by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1688). Both authors were convinced that human beings prey on each other like beasts. C. J. Sansom seems similarly convinced. He thrice has detective Matthew Shardlake repeat the ancient adage in Dark Fire (2004), the second novel in the Shardlake series.

Through the first-person narratives of Shardlake, a 16th-century lawyer, Sansom gives fictional life to a gloomy but not hopeless view of human nature. Dark Fire concerns the magical concoction of a jellied petroleum akin to napalm, which King Henry VIII is terrified that Catholic forces might use against him. Dissolution (2003) recounts Henry's closing of St. Donatus, the Benedictine monastery located at Scarnsea on the Cornish coast, as the newly crowned king begins his massive seizure of church lands and properties. Sansom's latest, Sovereign (published in Great Britain last year), tells of Henry's regal "progress," his grand tour of his kingdom from London to York as display of royal might and thus a warning against any potential uprising of Catholic forces in the north.

Discovering Sansom at the recommendation of P. D. James was like discovering James herself upon first reading Innocent Blood. Like her, Sansom is not a writer of airport mysteries--books to be read during a long flight and then forgotten. On the contrary, he seems destined to succeed Ellis Peters--pen name of Edith Pargeter (1913-1995)--as the eminent historical detective writer of our time. Whereas Peters set her Brother Cadfael novels in the Middle Ages, Sansom chooses Reformation England as his fictional milieu.

Having earned a doctorate in history from Birmingham and practiced as a solicitor, Sansom is well qualified to be a historical novelist. Unlike Peters, however, Sansom does not make things turn out just and right in the end. The innocent are not always vindicated nor the malefactors al ways punished, and the least likely suspects often prove guilty of the worst evils. Shardlake finds himself complicit, moreover, in the very crimes he seeks to solve.

More remarkable is the relevance of Sansom's work for our own time. Though he avoids any allegorizing of characters or scenes, Sansom wrestles with issues that still press upon us: the loss of faith, the rise of the tyrannous nation-state, the seizure of wealth by political machination, the pandemic of fear lying just beneath the surface of things, the cruel violence pervading everything. It is not only under the conditions of nature that life is "solitary, nasty, brutish and short," as Hobbes famously contended. It was equally mean and unsavory, Sansom demonstrates, at the origins of modern Anglophone civilization in the 16th century.

Yet Sansom does more than offer a searing indictment of human rapacity. In ways both subtle and profound, he suggests that an Erasmian kind of Christianity might yet offer an alternative to it.

Shardlake begins his career as a reformer convinced that the evils of medieval Catholicism demands its overthrow, including the dissolution of the The place of Chris- monasteries as promulgated by Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. Shardlake's anger at monastic corruption is not theoretical. Though educated by the monks at Lichfield, Shardlake was denied his calling to holy orders because of a physical deformity. "Anyone with a visible affliction," he was told by a smug, beer-swilling cenobite in Dissolution, "even a withered limb, let alone a great crooked humpback like yours, can never be a priest. How could you show yourself an intercessor between ordinary and sinful humanity and the majesty of God, when your form is so much less than theirs?"

In the face of such a mangled version of the gospel, Shardlake received a revelation that he still had a divine mission in life. Christ spoke to him directly for the first and last time: "You are not alone. …