A good mystery novel is always a good way to pass the time but combine it with a good setting and beautifully etched characters and the same few hours turn into something extraordinary. I simply loved this book. After many many days, I have again found an author whose complete works I would like to read.
This is a story of Sergeant Shardlake, who is a lawyer in the regime of King Henry the 8th ( the one who married all those wives and kept divorcing or beheading them to marry the next). He is a hunchback and not exactly a brave person, but he is honest and stubborn. He seems to be such an unlikely hero; over forty, afraid of antagonizing powerful people and being put in jail, physically weak and usually at the receiving end of a beating. And yet, it is impossible not to like this character for his sheer determination to provide justice to the poor and helpless against every possible hurdle that comes his way. England around Henry the VIII th’s time seems like a terrifying place to live in. It was so easy to fall a prey to disease, or be thrown into jail for your religious beliefs, real or imagined. It seems there are so many ways that an honest person could be destroyed financially and emotionally by unscrupulous individuals simply by making an unfounded accusation of treason or blasphemy against them. Were all societies as tyrannical as that or is it just that England seems to have documented its history very well?
This is the fifth in the ‘Shardlake’ series of books and this time Shardlake is given a commission by the Queen Catherine herself to look into the mysterious death of the son of an old servant. The son was found hanging from the beams in his lodgings, a few weeks after filing a complaint in the ‘court of wards’ against ‘great wrongs’ being inflicted on an old pupil of his, Hugh Curteys, whose ward-ship had been awarded to Nicholas Hobbey 6-7 years ago. The Court of Wards was a section of law wherein a person could buy the wardship of an orphan to look after his/her property till the child came of age. How many people genuinely cared for the children they ‘bought’ as wards must have been very difficult to ascertain but it doesn’t seem that anyone took any pains to check it. The court of wards was simply a corrupt and revenue generating machine for the king. And Shardlake must ascertain what were the wrongs that the complainant was referring to before his untimely death and whether there was any truth in these allegations. He must travel to the home of the ward to take depositions for his case and it is here that we meet several other characters of the drama.
Apart from official work, Shradlake is also looking for any relatives that he can find of a girl he met and befriended in Bedlam. He believes she is not really crazy and wants someone to take her away and give her a good life. That comes with its own set of problems when he discovers that there is no record of her being registered as a lunatic for the past 19 years of her incarceration. Against the advice of all his well-wishers he decides to unravel the mystery behind it all.
All these things are happening against the backdrop of the threat of war with France with every able-bodied young man being drafted for the army. Hugh lives on an estate that is close to the port where the invasion is most likely to occur and shardlake must travel straight into the line of fire to unravel all the very complex webs of lie and deception that have been spun to camouflage the truth.
Maybe, if you are as avid a reader as me, you may guess the outcome, but it is written so skillfully that you are content to travel at the author’s pace and wait for Shardlake to reach his conclusions in his own sweet time.
A must read.