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Ernie Rea, presenter of Radio 4's Beyond Belief

02 November 2006


'I recently discovered two thrillers, set in the 1530s, by C. J. Sansom. The main character in both, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer-detective employed by Cromwell. In Dissolution he is sent to investigate a murder at an abbey. A reformer, we see him become suspicious of absolute truths, and begin to suspect the motives of Cromwell and the other reformers, as he sees the remaining glories of the "old" religion. Shardlake is an ethical person who examines the motives of those around him as well as his own. The author cleverly explores the dissolution of the monastery alongside that of the behaviour of the characters.

The second book, Dark Fire, is set three years later. We find Shardlake questioning more, still praying, and hedging his bets politically. A young girl is about to be executed for murder, and Shardlake is given 12 days to prove her innocence. At the same time, he is asked to investigate "Greek fire", a powerful weapon in which water is said to burn. Henry VIII is anxious to get hold of it, but the fire has gone missing from the monastery where it was apparently discovered. Shardlake finds himself torn by moral debate: will the fire be used as a weapon of mass destruction?

The books are full of the smells of 16th-century London, and the poverty, violence, and deprivation. Sansom knows his religion. He knows all the debates that raged at that time, but never reveals where his sympathies lie. Five hundred years ago, we were convicting people on fairly flimsy evidence, and the books are a huge cry for tolerance. Sansom seems to me to be against anyone who believes in absolutes, and to believe in the Anglican middle way.'

C. J. Sansom, Dissolution, Pan £6.99 ( £6.30), 0-330-41196-9; Dark Fire, Pan £6.99 ( £6.30), 0-330-41197-7

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