Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback serjeant of the Tudor courts, undertakes his fifth series of cases (Revelation, 2009, etc.).
Henry VIII is marshaling forces for a war with France, but no one will conscript a crippled lawyer. Instead, Shardlake is commanded by the queen when his longtime patron, Queen Catherine, asks him to investigate corruption in the Court of Wards. Shardlake’s task is to go to the Hampshire estate of the Hobbey family and investigate their custody of the teenaged Hugh Curteys and his dead sister Emma. This assignment dovetails neatly with his personal obligation to an agoraphobic, Ellen Fettiplace, who cannot bring herself to leave the asylum of Bedlam. Matthew hopes to uncover the terrible events that cost her her wits, events that handily transpired not far from the Hobbey manor. Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak ride from London to Hampshire with the king’s recruits, only to find that Hugh Curteys is apparently satisfied with his foster family. Dogged investigation of the Hobbey estate reveals nothing—until Abigail Hobbey is shot through the head during a stag hunt. Meanwhile, a long-dead body, newly discovered, may hold the key to healing Ellen. Can Shardlake and Barak bring justice before the French invade?
The characters are sympathetic and the quirks of the historic courts interesting enough, but the plot is so tangled in the tedium of troop movements and provisions that it drags on longer than Catherine and Henry’s marriage. Best for historical sticklers, military fans and encyclopedists.