In his second Matthew Shardlake novel, C. J. Sansom combines historical fiction and the mystery genre to achieve a tour de force of intrigue and suspense. The year is 1540, a time of religious tension, political turmoil, and social strife in England. Henry VIII is showing signs of weakening his support for the religious reforms he and his vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, brought to England, and resurgent papists are plotting to bring Cromwell down. To restore his standing with the King, after falling out of favor for engineering Henry VIII’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves, Cromwell must find a mysterious ancient weapon of mass destruction known as “Dark Fire,” the formula for which has been found in a London monastery seized by the King.
This tinderbox atmosphere is the setting into which the renowned hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is plunged. Shardlake has taken on the apparently doomed case of young Elizabeth, the orphaned niece of his friend Joseph. Elizabeth stands charged with killing the son of Joseph’s brother, who had taken the girl in after her parents’ death. Elizabeth will speak to no one, refuses to plead, and will soon be slowly “pressed” to death unless Shardlake can discover the real murderer. Cromwell uses his influence to stay her execution for two weeks, on the condition that Shardlake will help him find “Dark Fire.” Shardlake reluctantly agrees and soon finds himself pressed between Cromwell’s demands, the fate of young Elizabeth, and the evil forces who are trying, with brutal tenacity, to keep him from finding the weapon. It soon becomes clear that not only does Elizabeth’s life hang in the balance, Cromwell’s does too, and Shardlake himself is in grave danger.
But Dark Fire is more than a mystery. In its rendering of the social injustices, political infighting, religious divisions, and racial and class prejudices of Tudor England, the novel brings a tumultuous historical period vividly to life. With only his own moral compass to guide him, Shardlake must navigate these treacherous waters if he is to succeed. And in writing that is at once taut with tension and acutely aware of the large social and political forces bearing down on his protagonist, C. J. Sansom has produced a masterful novel that combines the best elements of suspense and historical fiction.
C. J. Sansom earned a Ph.D. in history and was a lawyer before becoming a full-time writer.
Could you describe the genesis of Dark Fire? What compelled you to write this story?
I had heard of the mysterious ancient weapon, variously known as “Throwing Fire,” “Greek Fire,” and “Dark Fire,” used by the Byzantine armies against the Arabs in the seventh century, the formula for which had been lost but which modern scholars believe was based on petroleum. I thought that having the formula appear in one of the monasteries dissolved by Henry VIII would make a good story. I also wanted to bring back Thomas Cromwell but to show him at a different period, when his power was under threat so that we see a different side to his personality.
How much research did you do for Dark Fire? Does Tudor England have an especially strong hold on your imagination?
Tudor England is a fascinating period to me, especially the reign of Henry VIII with the enormous changes it brought to England. I had already written Dissolution for which my research focused on the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For Dark Fire I had to range more widely, researching Tudor London, the Tudor legal system, and Tudor alchemy and the level of scientific knowledge. However I managed to find books that covered these areas, so as with Dissolution, I spent about two to three months on the research.
What is the main appeal in writing historical fiction? How difficult is it to write about historical figures like Thomas Cromwell in a novel?
If you have a “historical imagination,” if you like to read about past times and imagine what it was like to live then, bringing the period to life in a novel is a very attractive prospect. As for historical figures, especially controversial ones like Thomas Cromwell, I think you have to read the various biographies and other works about them, come to your own conclusion about what they were really like, and set them on the page as characters. That is more restrictive than writing about someone you’ve just created out of thin air, because you have to be true to what is known of their personalities, but rewarding nonetheless.
Did you intend Dark Fire to comment on the politics and increasingly destructive weapons of our own time?
An interesting question. In fact the answer is no, at least not consciously. I had the idea for this book about four years ago, and started working on it at the beginning of 2003. By then the Iraq war, to which I was and remain totally opposed as strategic lunacy, was about to begin, but it wasn’t in prospect when the original idea came to me. Certainly I have tried to portray the dilemmas that a new and destructive technology would bring for members of a society whose technology was primitive—the idea of slaying all one’s enemies as against horror at the destruction that would be caused. But that is more like the dilemma faced by scientists in the Second World War, with the atomic bomb, than anything that is relevant today—after all, the most destructive weapons possible have been in existence since 1945.
On the other hand, the destruction that can be wreaked by religious zealots certain of their cause and prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone to their own vision of revealed truth, is certainly something that is relevant for our time, with the emergence of aggressive fundamentalists in all religions, not least in Christianity where to many “evangelists” today gay marriage is more important than thousands upon thousands of lives wasted in Iraq.
What makes Matthew Shardlake a compelling protagonist and narrator for you?
His mixture of integrity, determination, and vulnerability. He is more vulnerable now that he has lost the religious certainties that he was first starting to question at the opening of Dissolution, but he has a sense of justice and desire for truth that keeps him going for all that part of him would prefer a quiet peaceful life.
Dark Fire is concerned with issues of social justice, class antagonisms, and religious strife. How important are these issues for you personally?
Very important. I’ve touched on that above. England in Henry VIII’s time was in the course of emerging from a feudal to a capitalist society; during the religious revolution of the Reformation the interests of the poor and dispossessed hardly figured either with reformers or traditionalists, at least those in positions of power. Today it seems to me that a theological belief in the effectiveness of barely restrained free markets threatens the present generation with poverty and war, and future generations with fleeing drowned cities in a world consumed by global warming. And now, in the United Kingdom and the United States, those beliefs are bolstered by a sanctimonious religiosity on the part of the rulers. After the re-election of Bush by religious zealots who care everything for their own preoccupations and nothing for the real threats to the world, and who are used and manipulated by those in power, my frame of mind is extremely gloomy. And things are going the same way under Blair in the United Kingdom. He thinks he is a very special man. I think he is a dangerous incompetent, and will be voting next year to get rid of him.
What is the origin and meaning of some of the unusual oaths—“God’s blood,” “God’s death,” “Jesu,”etc.— that frequently appear in the novel?
English “swear words” today are usually sexual words, which seems odd. In Tudor times oaths were concerned with religion. It is only a guess, but I think these terms were originally used to lend emphasis to an argument and then became used more casually as oaths.
Was the practice of Law in Tudor England really as corrupt and arbitrary as it appears in Dark Fire?
In criminal law, yes. The civil law had developed often overelaborate procedures for dealing with disputes between individuals, which were available only to the wealthy, although some lawyers and judges did charitable work. My reading suggests that criminal law was just as arbitrary as it is portrayed in Dark Fire. The penalties, including pressing to death, are accurate and English criminal law had the reputation of being severe in contemporary Europe. It got much more severe under Henry VIII, who also, while using the forms of law in getting what he wanted, leaned heavily on Parliament and the judges. They were frightened of him and Cromwell—with good reason. All the evidence suggests that there was much corruption in the law, though as I have tried to show there were honest lawyers and judges too.
Could you give readers a glimpse of the next Matthew Shardlake novel? Will Matthew and Barak continue to be a team?
The next novel, Sovereign, features the old monster himself—yes, Henry VIII will appear at last. It is set during Henry VIII’s spectacular royal progress from London to York in 1541, when Shardlake and Barak find themselves in unwilling possession of some information that could cause damage to the royal family. Shardlake and Barak will continue as a team—I felt they worked together well in Dark Fire.