Revelation by CJ Sansom

I often enjoy crime fiction. I also often enjoy historical fiction. Unfortunately, when the two come together, I often find the results clumsy and absurd - I mean you, Ellis Peters and Lindsey Davis.

Consequently I had a few doubts about picking up Revelation, CJ Sansom's serial killer mystery set in the dying days of Henry VIII's reign. However, references to the Bedlam lunatic asylum, the aftermath of the Reformation and the Book of Revelation won me over. My fascination with mental illness, heretics and the Devil apparently know no bounds.

I'm delighted, then, to say that Sansom knocks spots off most of his historical crime fiction rivals. His detective is a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback approaching middle age. I enjoyed the observant, perceptive, introspective Shardlake, who narrates the novel, although at times he is perhaps a little too enlightened for a man living in the 1500s, to the point where I couldn't always find him entirely believable. I also liked his pragmatic and wholly convincing assistant, Jack Barak, whose troubled marriage forms one of the story's subplots, and Guy Malton, the Moorish physician. Less successful, perhaps, were one or two of the other characters - the various officials, working for Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, seemed rather interchangeable to me - but mostly, even the minor ones are expertly realised.

The main plot - essentially a whodunnit with a number of twists - has a remarkably high and increasingly grisly body count, beginning with Shardlake's close friend (and former love rival) Roger Elliard. Realistic? Well, no, not really. Entertaining? Absolutely, with a lot of racing across London on horseback and brushes with death to boot. It also explores the nature of obsession and includes some fascinating insights into life under a capricious dictator of a monarch who veers from religious conservatism to radicalism and back again with each wife, and expects his subjects to do the same. The killer's victims are lapsed Reformers and their deaths appear to have been staged to symbolise events from St John's visions of the apocalypse - so what's the killer's motive and who will be his final victim? And what's happened to Shardlake's client Adam Kite to drive him into a religious, prayer-obsessed fervour that could see him burned as a heretic? Moreover, where does the new fashion for false teeth come into it?

As an entertaining read I couldn't fault this. The writing's not perfect - I could have done without some of the clunkier bits of historical exposition, personally - and the plot is certainly far-fetched, but the setting is incredibly vivid, sometimes almost viscerally so, and so are most of the characters. Next time I go on holiday and I need a good plane-journey read with all the most satisfying tropes of a classic detective story seamlessly worked into an intelligent historical novel with a bit of substance, I'll definitely consider picking up another of the Shardlake series.

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