London, 1545. Lawyer Matthew Shardlake is commissioned by the new queen, Catherine Parr, to investigate allegations of wrongdoing concerning a wardship in Kent; a former tutor has killed himself, leaving assertions that the young man being cared for under the wardship agreement is being mistreated. Shardlake agrees, in part because the trip to Kent will allow him to pursue an enquiry of his own, into the circumstances behind a friend, Ellen Fettisplace, being driven mad and then taken to the Bedlam hospital, where she has lived for almost twenty years.
The fifth Shardlake novel is again a different beast from its predecessors; one of the pleasures the series offers is enjoying the variety of adventures in which Shardlake and his clerk Jack Barak may be embroiled. Other pleasures lie in the way in which storylines stretch over novels, and in which there are a series of subplots playing out and paying off, and in which seemingly disparate plot threads entwine.
The technical expertise extends to the writing too. Sansom is clear and straightforward throughout, explaining without lecturing on a range of mid-sixteenth century topics (medicine, archery, the role of the purser on board ship, legal specifics across different specialisms). The novel is never less than entertaining and at some points becomes quite exhilarating. Standout sequences include a well-realised hunt and a splendid negotiation/standoff between Shardlake and nemesis Sir Richard Rich. There are a couple of neat set-ups for potential plotlines for future novels too.
Despite its length, Heartstone never feels laboured or as though it is treading water. Some may wince a little at one of the central plot reveals being a little weak, but taken as a whole, this fifth exploit is up there with the very best of the series to date, Dark Fire, as being an exemplary historical thriller.
Sansom, C J. 2011. Heartstone (London: Pan), 730 pages, 978-033044711-9