When I’m stuck for inspiration on what to read next, I tend to head to the library and just grab something off the shelves that looks kind of cool. Seven years ago, using this highly sophisticated decision process, I picked up an intriguing-looking book by an author I’d never heard of, CJ Sansom. It was a mystery featuring a hunchbacked lawyer in Tudor England named Matthew Shardlake. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but the book absolutely blew me away with its detailed command of the period, the impeccably plotted mystery, and its brilliant yet tragic protagonist. The Shardlake books are now my favorite historical mystery series and Sansom’s name is generally one of the first on my lips when friends ask for book recommendations.
Heartstone is the latest entry in the Shardlake series. At the beginning of the novel, Shardlake is summoned by Queen Catherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) to aid one of her servants. At the Queen’s behest Shardlake finds himself investigating the life of a young man named Hugh Curteys, who has been the ward of landowner Nicholas Hobbey since his parents’ death. The servant’s late son, Hugh’s former tutor, was convinced that something was terribly wrong in the Hobbey household, and it is up to Shardlake to find out if the tutor was right — and if Hugh’s situation had anything to do with the tutor’s death.
Meanwhile, Shardlake also finds himself the object of some unwanted attention. A Bedlam patient named Ellen Fettiplace has developed an infatuation with the kindly Shardlake. Too soft-hearted to dash her hopes, Shardlake hopes to find Ellen’s family and help them better arrange for her needs and care, but it soon becomes clear that Ellen’s situation is far more complicated than he realized. All of this takes place against a backdrop of impending war between England and France.
Sansom skillfully builds the tension in both Hugh’s and Ellen’s mysteries. The resolution of both plots, however, is a bit of a letdown. In one case, the coincidences pile up a bit too thick and fast. In the other case, I felt strongly that the crime could not have been successfully pulled off, nor did I believe the motivations of the person responsible. Overall, I enjoyed Heartstone but thought that as a mystery it was not up to the high standard set by previous Shardlake books like Dark Fire and Revelation.
However, Heartstone‘s emotional payoff is spot-on. This book is a prime example of how important character development is even in plot-heavy mystery novels. The events of this book force Shardlake to consider his tendency to become over-involved with his cases and to think seriously about whether he is helping or hurting his clients by doing so. Ultimately I was willing to forgive some of the plot holes because Matthew’s journey in Heartstone was so rich and heart-rending.
If you’re new to CJ Sansom, don’t start here — pick up Dissolution instead and read the Shardlake books in chronological order. But if you’re a Shardlake fan already you won’t need my encouragement to spend a few hundred pages in our favorite Tudor lawyer’s company.
Rating: Library Loan