Sometimes, a publisher just has to get a book into the reader's hands! Why do I say that? I'll tell you. I would never have picked up C.J. Sansom's Revelation if it was lying in a bookshop, and I never clicked despite Amazon's best efforts to 'recommend' it to me.
Shardlake? Sounds too corny! Revelation? Too Dan Brown! The black, gold and blood-red cover, too murder-in-the-dungeon!
The book finally reached my hands via a houseguest, who had picked it up at an airport book stand and was taking advantage of the Faithful Little Woodburner and a glass of burgundy to rest his weary ski-legs and bury himself for a while in Tudor England (as if medieval Italy wasn't enough!). Having read the blurb, I joined the queue.
The blurb? Here it is : serial killer loose in Tudor London, using the Book of Revelation as his inspiration. Hunchback lawyer-detective Matthew Shardlake, Jewish sidekick Jack Barak and Moorish monk-physician Guy Malton are in pursuit. The Sunday Times called it, "Compulsively gripping" (sounds like a case of diarrhoea), and The Times called it, "The best Shardlake yet" (did I tell you this is one in a long and successful series starring our hunchback lawyer?).
I liked it. It gripped me (though not in a toilet kind of way). The mystery was well-constructed, and it was interesting to be asked to imagine what the Tudor mind might make of the work of a serial killer in a time of religious upheaval, persecution and fanaticism. The action is plotted against a background of immense change and uncertainty, and Sansom, a Tudor scholar-turned-scribbler is clearly at home describing the personal, social and architectural effects of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. And when writing scenes in which supposed heretics are hauled out of their houses (a butcher for selling meat during Lent, a family for owning 'heretical' books) Sansom seems to have gone to 1930s Germany or Stalinist Russia for his inspiration.
I particularly liked Sansom's sketching in of London as a place in the 1540s. I know London well, having lived and worked in central London for more than twenty years, and having had the habit of walking or cycling rather than riding the Tube, I am as familiar with the city's geography and topography as with a favourite pair of gloves. So when Sansom's hero gazes across from Lincoln's Inn to the (then) fields of Long Acre, in my imagination I am doing the same. And when he rides east past the "tumbled stones of the dissolved Blackfriars monastery...across London Bridge and through Southwark..." I am on my way home.
Revelation is a good read. Sansom makes a good job of weaving together a clever murder-mystery with some interesting psychology, and his way of bringing history to life by appealing to the reader's own experience is admirable.
But how does a former scholar square academic seriousness with churning out bestselling murder-mysteries on familiar themes? The gruesome prophecies of Revelation are hardly news to the genre, not least in Hollywood. Well, I suspect a healthy dose of self-irony. When Shardlake is asked what he thinks the murderer will do when he has exhausted this particular chapter of Revelation as an inspiration for murder, he replies, "Find a new theme for murder .... There are plenty in Revelation."
And, if he knows what's good for his royalties, that's exactly what Sansom will be doing right now. And when he's done, I'll click when Amazon 'recommends'.