Friday, February 4, 2011

Heartstone by C.J. Sansom: A review

I admit it. I am a mystery series junkie. I enjoy nothing better than discovering a well-written mystery series with sympathetic characters that I can care about. I love following the development of the series and the characters. If it happens to be a historical mystery, then I have truly found nirvana. I might just OD.

Probably my favorite mystery series at the moment, and it does just happen to be historical, is C.J.Sansom's Tudor mysteries featuring the hunchback lawyer/detective Matthew Shardlake. Part way through the series Shardlake was joined by an assistant, Jack Barak. The two of them together make a very effective team, a team which exhibits a humanistic philosophy in what is, in many ways, the very inhumane society that was Henry XIII's England of the mid-1500s.

Heartstone
is the fifth book in the series and is one of the best. Of course, I think I say that about them all.

In this entry, we are nearing the end of Henry's reign. He is conducting a war of choice against France, a war that has financially devastated his country and caused the devaluation of the currency. It has also devastated the population with thousands of unnecessary deaths and disabling injuries. Still, Henry continues to draft more men into his army and navy, even hiring mercenaries from other countries to help fight his ill-conceived war. Much of this seems very relevant to our own recent history.

Henry's current wife is Catherine Parr who has been a friend to Shardlake, and he to her in the past. Now she sends for him and asks him to pursue a court case that had been initiated by a tutor against a former employer who he believed was mistreating and robbing his two rich wards. The tutor, who subsequently committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, was the much-loved son of a former servant of Catherine Parr. She and her former servant seek justice for the young man.

(As an aside, when Shardlake goes to meet with the queen, he meets the king's daughter, Elizabeth, who impresses him greatly. Foreshadowing, perhaps?)

Accepting the assignment will take Shardlake and Barak into the very teeth of what appears to be a planned French invasion of England at Portsmouth. They must travel some tortuous roads which are already clogged with military personnel and supplies also trying to get to Portsmouth. Along the way, Shardlake sees the misery and hardships of the recently conscripted soldiers and he sees the struggles and heartaches of the citizens whose labors are financing a foolish king's prideful venture.

While in the area, Shardlake plans to investigate another case, that of Ellen Fettiplace, a woman inmate of Bedlam whom he has befriended. Something happened to her nineteen years before that unhinged her mind and left her unable to face the world. Shardlake, that inveterate righter of wrongs, wants to find out what it was and free Ellen from the fear which has entrapped her.

Meantime, all Barak wants is to avoid being conscripted into the army and to get home as soon as possible to his beloved Tamasin who is expecting their child.

The plot with all its intermingled mysteries is too richly drawn to do any real justice to it in a brief review. Sansom, who is a lawyer with a Ph.D. in history, knows this period. The book is rigorously researched and the real-life characters that appear in it stay true to their historical facts of life. It is a big book with plenty of rousing fictional adventures, but it remains true throughout to its time and place. It is a very satisfying read.

And yet...

There is one quibble that I have with this book that just sets my teeth on edge! Throughout, Sansom, the lawyer and Ph.D, continually uses subjective pronouns as objects, as in "The red-faced soldier cursed Barak and I." Barak and I. Really? Does Viking have no editors? Have the rules of English grammar really changed so much since my elementary school days of diagramming sentences? Do children even diagram sentences any more? Would Sansom really write "The red-faced soldier cursed I?" Somehow I don't think so. Why then would he write "Barak and I" in that same context?

The misuse of subjective pronouns really is my absolute pet peeve in grammar, enough so that it caused me to give this five-star book only four stars. Please do better next time, Dr. Sansom!

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