C. J. Sansom’s second novel, featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, “Dark Fire” is set in the latter days of Thomas Cromwell as King Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves continues to decline. Cromwell engineered the marriage (the king’s fourth) between Henry and Anne, mainly by over-embellishing the beauty of Anne. Henry was repulsed by Anne’s homeliness and Cromwell was soon out of favor.
To reverse his descent, Cromwell has learned of a substance known as “Greek Fire” or “Dark Fire”, a liquid that can set a ship aflame stem to stern in seconds and schedules a demonstration for the king. Gambling that this could be his path back into favor, he charges Shardlake to retrieve the formula from the men who had given Cromwell an earlier demonstration of the Dark Fire’s power. Matthew is extremely reluctant to become involved in Cromwell’s schemes but the earl has managed to stay the execution by press of one of Shardlake’s clients, a girl accused of her young cousin’s murder.
The girl Elizabeth is the niece of a friend of Matthew’s and he has hired him to defend her even though the evidence against her is overwhelming. Elizabeth has not spoken a word since the alleged murder of her cousin Ralph. Even the threat of a slow agonizing death has not loosened her tongue. She is on her way to the press when Cromwell intervenes.
Matthew is grateful for the two-week reprieve to try to prove the young girl’s innocence, despite her grandmother, surviving cousins and the uncle with whom she was living, viciously assert that she murdered her sweet endearing cousin in cold blood with no more motive than being cruel.
Adding to Shardlake’s discomfort is a street-wise young man Barak who has been charged by Cromwell to assist Matthew’s search for the Greek Fire. They find the men claiming to have the formula brutally murdered. The assassins seem to be one step ahead of Shardlake and Barak at every turn of the mystery and make several attempts on their lives. Who hired the thugs is the big question facing Shardlake and his cohort. One suspect is a wealthy young lady of a family that has fallen out of favor with the king. She catches Matthew’s eye and it seems that she likes him in return, a feeling quite alien to the deformed lawyer.
Their two-week deadline draws closer and they realize that the Greek Fire is a fraud concocted to disgrace Cromwell in front of the king. Shardlake is pulled in all directions as he and Barak search for the conspirators behind the fraud and investigate the murder of Elizabeth’s cousin.
In the final conclusion, the person behind the Greek Fire hoax is revealed to Shardlake and Barak just as they are to be silenced permanently. They barely escape only to find they are too late. Cromwell has been sent to the Tower.
Quickly before Cromwell’s supporters are rounded up as well, Matthew and Barak confront Elizabeth’s ice-cold grandmother with the hideous truth about her grandson’s death and in the process nearly lose their lives again.
This novel is more exciting and contains more action and physical exertion for Shardlake than Sansom’s previous work, the excellent “Dissolution”. In both, Sansom paints a gritty and candid picture of London in the last years of Henry VIII’s reign. His portrayal of Newgate Prison is as graphic as Anya Seton’s in “Devil Water” (reviewed earlier), picturing it as a stinking, reeking Hell-hole that few emerged alive.
Lifestyles and prejudices are laid bare as Barak’s Jewish heritage (although his family converted generations ago) puts him at a greater disadvantage than dark color of the apothecary Guy’s skin. Shardlake believes that his deformity is something that can finally be overlooked by a beautiful lady, but finds out that the lines between classes cannot. One of the best scenes was a vicious but all-too brief exchange of words between Elizabeth’s venom-tongued grandmother and the Lady Honor, the woman who captures Matthew’s heart. The grandmother brutalizes Shardlake when she discovers he has a lady with him even though he is humpbacked. Lady Honor bares her claws, defending Matthew, and proving that she is more than a match for the old hag.
Vanity also knows no bounds as Sansom describes the era’s use of the poisonous nightshade, which in small doses dilates the pupils of young girls’ eyes to enhance their loveliness. This fact is what ultimately helps Shardlake save himself and the life of his friend Barak.
Sansom’s work continues to amaze and entertain. As he develops Shardlake, we find the hunchback lawyer becoming an upright and stalwart hero. There are other sleuths with handicaps: Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding and Caroline Roe’s Isaac of Girona both of whom are blind; but Matthew Shardlake seems to be the most fragile, whose main weakness is his heart. However, he is resilient and tough and stands tall even next to Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew.