Pan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-330-45078-2. 576 pages.
Set in London in the summer of 1540, Dark Fire is the second in the historical mystery series that began with Dissolution (reviewed here earlier). Historical figures Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk and Richard Rich appear as secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.
Matthew Shardlake has been practising quietly as a property lawyer in London for three years, since he investigated a series of murders at Scarnsea monastery for Cromwell (recounted in Dissolution). The terrible events of that time cooled Shardlake’s ardour for religious reform, and he has no desire for any further involvement in high politics or religion; indeed, he is entertaining vague dreams about a peaceful country retirement. Against his better judgement, he is persuaded to take up a seemingly hopeless criminal case, defending the young niece of an old friend against a charge of brutal murder. The girl refuses to plead, and Shardlake has no hope of saving her – until Cromwell intervenes with a stay of execution. But Cromwell’s intervention has a price. He wants Shardlake to obtain the secret of Greek Fire, apparently recently rediscovered in the library of a dissolved monastery by a legal official and his alchemist brother. Cromwell has promised a demonstration to the king. But when Shardlake arrives at their house, he finds the brothers brutally murdered and all their papers stolen. Now Shardlake has to recover the secret from the murderers, and he has only twelve days to do it – if he can stay alive himself.
Dark Fire lives up to the high standard set by Dissolution. The search for Greek Fire is an ingenious mystery plot with plenty of twists and turns, false leads and dead ends, with a fair share of violent action. At the same time Shardlake is also trying to solve the mastery surrounding his friend’s niece and prove her innocent, and the two investigations intertwine, adding further complexity.
Like its predecessor, Dark Fire has a strong feeling of authenticity, conjuring up the fears and uncertainties raised by religious conflict, the sudden and ruthless destruction of the monasteries (and the consequent loss of the medical and social security services they provided, for all their faults), the rise of a money-grubbing clique obsessed with getting rich quick at everyone else’s expense, and the increasingly tyrannical rule of the ageing Henry VIII. The squalor of Tudor London is well captured, from a rich noblewoman having to remind her lady-in-waiting not to trail her hand in the Thames during a boat trip because of the floating turds, to the gimcrack slums made of once-fine religious buildings by greedy landlords.
The most attractive feature of the novel for me was the character of Shardlake. Amidst this corrupt and semi-lawless world, Shardlake stands out as a humane and honest individual, prepared to use his legal training to stand up for the weak against the powerful to see justice done – insofar as there is justice to be had in a world where judges can be routinely bribed and the powerful do not hesitate to stoop to intimidation and murder. Shardlake is a fully rounded character, with his fair share of flaws and foibles. He is sensitive about his hunchback, so much so that it becomes almost a form of vanity, and his humanity has blind spots that result in unintentional mistreatment of others.
I was pleased to see that Guy, an ex-monk from Scarnsea who appeared in Dissolution, makes a return in Dark Fire, now practising as a secular apothecary in London. Shardlake’s new assistant is another well-drawn character, a tough young bruiser called Jack Barak, working for Cromwell on various dodgy missions and temporarily seconded to Shardlake for the Greek Fire case. Cocky and insolent on the surface, he is gradually revealed in more depth, and his painful history gives him insights that escape Shardlake. The ending suggests that the pairing may continue into further adventures, and it will be interesting to see how the two characters develop.
At well over 500 pages, the novel is very long, and in places I felt the pace slowed almost to a crawl, despite the constant reminders of the twelve-day deadline ticking down. This may be partly because I know a little about the history, so there was no suspense in the political subplot for me. On the other hand, the length gives plenty of space for lots of historical detail about prisons, legal practice, living conditions, social customs and the economic and social consequences following on from the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
A helpful Historical Note outlines the political and religious background to the novel, and notes the fictional parts of the plot. There is a useful map of London at the front, which helps in following the characters as they move around the city.
Ingenious mystery with an strong sense of time and place, set against the murderous political and religious conflicts of Henry VIII’s London.