A brilliant lawyer investigates murder in a monastery that’s under attack by Henry VIII’s greedy forces of secularism.
It’s 1537, and Dr. Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer operating on the fringes of the rapacious Tudor court, has been handed a case that may advance his career but is more likely to sink it. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s powerful and ruthless vicar general, has charged Shardlake with the investigation of a grisly crime on what should be holy ground: the Benedictine monastery in Scarnsea, Sussex. A lawyer sent down previously to lean on Scarnsea’s abbot about a possible signing over of the monastery to the crown lost his head. With a sword. Shardlake, a great brain in a twisted body (he’s a hunchback), can’t say no. Having risen by his wits to a profitable legal career and ownership of a comfortable house in the city, he is indebted to his monarch’s machinery. Besides, he, like Cromwell and, supposedly, the king, is firmly committed to the great religious reforms that have all but taken the country to war with the once supremely rich and powerful monasteries. Accompanied by his young clerk Mark, Shardlake plods through the frozen countryside to Scarnsea. What he finds is an institution despised by its neighbors, depleted by the reforms, demoralized by revelations of sodomy and unchasteness, and thoroughly spooked by the decapitation of the royal emissary. Understandably suspicious of nearly everyone, Shardlake comes to rely warily on the monastery’s Moorish medic and becomes unhappily attracted to Alice, the comely and clever serving girl. Grilling his suspects like a modern detective, he sifts through the inevitable red herrings, turns up a new corpse, and dodges death by falling statuary. Handsome Mark, meanwhile, is getting lustful looks from the master of music and growing more familiar with Alice than suits the lawyer. And London is pressing for the case to be wrapped up. The right way.
Spooky atmosphere and a wealth of fascinating historical tidbits suffer from rather grinding detective work.