Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Delicious Death: CJ Sansom

So there I was, at the Have I Got News For You filming last week, among equal numbers of Barbour-clad estate owners and nerds with backpacks. As we all sat and waited for the god-like advent of Ian Hislop, Feel Good Inc. began to play over the loudspeaker.

"Wow," I said to my friend Boadicea (everyone should have a friend called Boadicea), "this is a bit cool for Have I Got News For You, isn't it?"

"Robin," said Boadicea (honestly, this is her real name), "this song is from 2005."

And just like that, I realised my age was showing.

I know I'm still many years away from Spanx and anti-wrinkle cream, but the signs are all there. The younger siblings of my friends are showing startling tendancies to go to university and get jobs, my favourite children's authors are dying like flies and I don't know the name of a single member of One Direction. Also, I remember eating Opal Fruits. Damn kids, get off my lawn!

More distressingly, many of the books I used to read as a child - and even as a teenager - are beginning to go out of print. When I was just getting into crime fiction, way back when everyone wore leggings and Will Smith was cool (this could actually be a description of 2012, except that now everyone wears leggings and Will Smith's offspring are cool. I think. Are they still cool?), the go-to historical crime series was Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael novels. Remember Brother Cadfael? Do you? Well, you must be getting old like me.

For the young among you, these books were about a medieval Welsh monk who solved crime and gardened, often at the same time. Bloodstained bodies constantly turned up, in piles of straw and blocks of ice and under hedgerows and so on, and Cadfael would potter about a bit, work out who done it, tell them off for being naughty and go back to pruning his apricots. It was all extremely nice, and very historically accurate, so you could pretend you were learning something while you waited for the next body to turn up.

It has taken me an extrememly long time to notice that people have moved beyond Cadfael. Apparently medieval monks are not the done thing any more. He no longer appears in bookshops, and if you mention him to crime junkies they look at you like they have no idea what you are talking about. The twelfth century is so not in right now. In fact, these days it's fashionable to make your historical detective a Tudor, so you still get to write about blackened teeth and privies, but with the added bonus of a monarch people actually know the name of.

I've been slightly resisting trying this codpiece crimewave out, for no better reason than that Change Is Bad, but then last week I saw the first CJ Sansom novel in our local library and I thought that I might as well give it a try. So I got Dissolution out, and I read it, and then I immediately went back to the library and exchanged it for Dark Fire. It turns out that change is actually pretty good - though since the first Sansom was originally published in 2003, most of you may have already found this out.

Sansom's chosen period is, as I've said, Tudor England, and his first book starts with (those who were paying attention in History, hands up now) the dissolution of the monastaries under Henry VIII. Yes, just like the Cadfael books, Dissolution is all about monks arguing with each other and then committing lots of lovely murders. The whole thing gives off more than a whiff of Ellis Peters, from its plot to its plethora of meticulous and yet still slightly dodgy-seeming historical detail. Like Peters, its content means that it ought to be grim, and yet you get an overwhelming sense of sweetness and calm. After all the blood has been cleared up, you know that everything is going to be very nice for the remaining characters. (Unless you are a monk at the end of Dissolution, in which case you are screwed.)

I can't say I know a huge amount about the period, apart from that Henry was a fat king who married lots of ladies, but I'm pretty sure Sansom's historical details are all present and correct. There's a great moment in Dark Fire, the second book, where someone gets sick because he's been drinking water, and the main character Matthew Shardlake hears about it and says something along the lines of "Jesu! Water! No wonder he's ill." Also there are lots of nasty bits with privies and pisspots and rotting meat, because as we all know, history is dirty and it smells. As far as the little things go, Sansom gets top marks.

But there are definitely bits that would have a Tudor scholar rocking back and forward in a corner. The first book is set during the shutting-down of the monastaries (which certainly did occur), but the second is all about Thomas Cromwell trying to find the long-lost formula for Greek Fire to keep himself in favour with King Henry (which did not happen even slightly at all). And things get even more ropey when you consider Shardlake himself. He appears to have sprung fully-formed from a checklist called 'How To Make People Like Your Historical Character (Even Though He Is White And Part Of The Patriarchy)'.

Debilitatingly disabled (he is a hunchback, something we are reminded of about every three pages), Shardlake has nonetheless striven through cruelty and adversity to succeed as a lawyer. He gives alms to the poor whenever asked, he is kind to his horse, he believes women can be intelligent and his best friend is a black man. (While all other characters express mild to severe confusion and distress at the sight of said black man - there are many, many scenes where someone turns to Shardlake and says, "I don't want to be rude, but have you noticed that that man is black?" - Shardlake is totally OK with it from the start, because he is cool like that.) Also, in the second book, he gets an assistant who is slightly Jewish, and he works pro bono to exonerate a falsely-accused woman because he believes everyone should have a fair trial. To all of this I say: come ON. I totally agree that racism, sexism and ableism are bad, and I understand how tempting it is to make your historical character sympathetic, but these traits together are too much for the sixteenth century. Most people in the twenty-first century aren't even this liberal. I wish they were, but the fact still stands that they are not.

I know, I'm whining. And before you take my complaints seriously, remember how fast I got through Dissolution and Dark Fire. Basically, ignore me. Flawed though they are, these books are, more importantly, extremely fun. Like Peters' Cadfael books, they're nice enough to be charming, nasty enough to be exciting and contain enough local colour in them to make you think you are learning worthy things about history. Actually, of course, you are reading about people throwing each other down wells and off tall buildings, which is even better.

So, in conclusion: I miss Cadfael, I like Shardlake, I'm glad someone is following in Ellis Peters' footsteps but at the same time I'm deeply disturbed that I remember Ellis Peters well enough to know that there are shoes Sansom is filling. In fact, I'm practically a historical artifact myself, and now I'm just waiting for the day when people start writing historical crime about the 1990s. THEN I'll be old.

The Shardlake series gets 3 stars.

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