The fifth of the series featuring Matthew Shardlake and set in Tudor England. This one is set in 1545 in turbulent times, for England is at war and the French are expected to arrive at any moment with an army and fleet of ships much larger than the Spanish Armada. And Portsmouth is where they are expected to arrive with Henry VIII preparing to head there. Meanwhile back in London, Shardlake finds himself called on once again by Catherine Parr, who had promised to keep him away from politics. And while she does keep her promise, she has a case for him nonetheless. The son of a former servant was tutor to two children Hugh and Emma; after their parents died, their wardship was bought by one Master Hobbey, clearly with far from noble intentions (benefitting from their property at the very least while they remain minors). But Emma too has died of an illness, while the Hobbeys with Hugh have moved to the country, dismissing the tutor Michael Calfhill. Michael happens to visit them one day one day, to look into Hugh’s wellbeing and finds out something horrifying, even filing a complaint about it (not saying what it was though). But before anything further happens, Michael commits suicide. Now Shardlake is asked to take the case and look into the matter and the welfare of Hugh. And where would the Hobbeys live, but Portsmouth. Alongside Shardlake also plans to look into the case of Ellen, the woman in Bedlam he met on a previous case and why her family seems to have abandoned her there. Since her village is also in the vicinity, he decides to investigate although he knows Ellen would not approve and wants the past to be left alone. Meanwhile his assistant Jack’s wife Tamasin is expecting while because of the war (and his impudence), he is on the verge of being drafted. This adventure takes us into not only some interesting mysteries, but also in the midst of the war showing both the young men who were being led there, their training, fears, apprehensions, and also some of the action itself, including aboard the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s carrack.
This is once again, like all the other Shardlake books, a doorstopper—the edition I have has 636 pages, but despite its length it is one that manages to hold one’s attention or even more so, keep one entirely hooked all though. I love how these books really pull one into the settings, as though we are there experiencing events unfold alongside Shardlake. The story, in fact the entire atmosphere is pretty intense, with Shardlake involved in two mysteries that are far from simple and that have, even before he has set out towards Portsmouth begun to put him in danger. When he arrives at the Hobbeys’ home, things seem perfectly normal at the surface, yet he knows the family (and perhaps also their lawyer who has travelled down with him) have something to hide. But what? The mystery surrounding Ellen’s past too is not a very straightforward one and even when he visits her village, the mystery only deepens. In in neither case can the reader figure out what the answer might turn out to be. To add to these baffling cases is the atmosphere of war itself, and for Shardlake the added danger that if he remains in Portsmouth too long, he might end up running into Henry VIII with whom his previous encounter was far from pleasant. His old nemesis Sir Richard Rich too seems to be watching his every step keenly. And in the Hobbey house, besides the tensions within the house, there is discontent in the village as well for the poorer residents are far from pleased with the Hobbeys’ dealings.
Although this is a grave and intense read, dealing also with some disturbing themes, it is also very interesting reading with well-drawn out (and very realistic) characters and a very gripping plot (or should I say, plots?). Once again an excellent read!
Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to your thoughts!
Cover image: my own.