Friday, August 19, 2016

Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

A colleague introduced me to Sansom last year, starting with the first book in the series, Dissolution. I enjoyed that book very much, so I decided to push on to the next.

There is a saying about second efforts in all genres that has a certain amount of truth to it. It isn’t unusual for a second book or album to be a disappointment. If nothing else, the first success was the result of a long effort, while the second is sometimes quickly thrown together to capitalize on the success of the first.

This is definitely not the case with C. J. Sansom. If anything, the second book, Dark Fire, is even better than the first. 

Sansom is an English solicitor, sort of (but not exactly) analogous to a transactional lawyer in our United States’ legal system. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake shares this profession - but in the time of Henry VIII. Shardlake is a hunchback, somewhat outside of the approval of society. It is this alienation - and the alienation of several of his associates - that makes him who he is.

While the previous book dealt with a murder committed at a monastery which was being secularized as part of the reforms under Thomas Cromwell (who hires Shardlake to investigate), this mystery is set in London itself. There are two parallel mysteries, in fact. The first is a private case that Shardlake has undertaken: defending a young woman accused of murdering her cousin. The second is another commission from Cromwell with much bigger stakes.

Cromwell has been approached by an alchemist who claims to have rediscovered Dark Fire (aka Greek Fire) in an old monastery. A demonstration is made - successfully - and a time is set to demonstrate for the king himself. But the circumstances are odd, and Cromwell seeks to investigate. Before things can go very far, though, the alchemist is brutally murdered, and all traces of the formula and the Dark Fire disappear.

Throughout the long investigation (the book is nearly 500 pages), it becomes increasingly clear that there are a number of major political figures of the era involved, and that the outcome will determine the fate of England itself.

Sansom has clearly researched his books thoroughly. I did a bit of reading on my own to refresh my memory as to the actual history, and Sansom carefully hews to the known facts whenever the plot involves real events. The dark fire mystery may be fictional, but the players and the fall of Cromwell are most certainly not. Likewise, Sansom put in the time to understand the science behind Greek Fire, both the chemistry and the physics of the delivery mechanism. Equally challenging in this case was to keep the knowledge of the characters limited to that of the 16th Century. Avoiding modern anachronisms is a tough task, but Sansom does his work well.

There is also great skill evident in the historical detail. Whether it is the sights, the sounds, the social issues and arguments, the religious sects, and especially the smells of the city, Sansom brings them to life convincingly. I have yet to detect any errors in any of this - and I care about science and history. It is this attention to detail combined with vivid writing that raises this book above the usual crowd of historical fiction or mystery writing.

The one thing that does strike one as slightly out of place is that Shardlake is a rather modern thinker. Let me hasten to add that this is clearly intentional on the author’s part. Shardlake is both a character, and a stand-in for the author and the reader. Probably an average lawyer of the time wouldn’t have thought in feminist terms or with the same eye to both skepticism and human rights. I mean, the Enlightenment was still a century or more away. But this isn’t as much of a stretch as one might think. Shardlake is an admirer of Erasmus, who himself was far ahead of his time. There is also evidence that a number of intellectuals were already thinking and writing things which would eventually lead to the Enlightenment, so it isn’t unthinkable that others thought the same way, but were unwilling to risk life and property to say them out loud.

In addition to the atmosphere, Sansom has also brought realistic writing to the society itself. Prostitution is (in practice) legal and regulated, women face difficult choices if they become pregnant out of wedlock - and these choices are determined in significant part by wealth. The poor live in deplorable conditions and, like in our own day, the wealthy use their influence to avoid regulation of the slums.

There are a few other things that I thought were interesting about this book. First, Shardlake has a new sidekick. Mark, his original one, eloped to Europe under circumstances that demanded he stay there, so he was obviously not going to be back. I was never a big fan of Mark, though. He was okay, but not a great foil for Shardlake.

Replacing Mark is one of Cromwell’s lackeys, Jack Barak, a rogue of dubious history, with a semi-secret Jewish heritage. (Not good in an era when the Jews had been forcibly expelled from England. Ah, the good old days…) Barak was educated as a child, so he is able to assist in the legal matters, but he later joined the underworld, so his real talents are, well, more physical. At the outset, the two of them do not get along, each suspicious of the other (for good reason) and at odds over both social niceties and social issues. Shardlake, after all, has never known true poverty. He may be compassionate, but he doesn’t really get the experience of the side. Barak, on the other hand, loathes the nobility, and has a tendency to forget his manners at the worst time. This all makes for a nice bit of frisson when they are forced to rely on each other to solve the mystery - and indeed to stay alive.

Like Dissolution, Dark Fire explores the key issue of the day in England: whence Church and State? Henry VIII initially made common cause with the reformer Thomas Cromwell in persecuting both Catholics and Non-conformists. Cromwell was disgustingly bloody - a fact that makes Shardlake uncomfortable even as he must submit to Cromwell. This eventually leads Shardlake to become disillusioned with the Reformist cause, and increasingly question his faith. Toward the end of the book, Shardlake has a conversation with Guy, a Catholic moorish apothecary we meet in the first book - a man who is lying low trying to live his life without being persecuted for his differences: black skin, African (and Muslim) origin, and forbidden religion.

‘Why does faith bring out the worst in so many, Guy?’ I blurted out. ‘How is it that it can turn men, papist and reformer both, into brutes?’
‘Man is an angry, savage being. Sometimes faith becomes an excuse for battle. It is no real faith then. In justifying their positions in the name of God, men silence God.’
‘But have the comfortable belief that, having read the Bible and prayed, they cannot be wrong.’
‘I fear so.’

This is a conversation that has played out in my head over the last few years, as I see my own tribe gearing up for jihad against all who believe differently, Christian, Atheist, or Muslim.

Many of the best conversations (in both books) come between Shardlake and Guy. They are both “outsiders,” so to speak, and both have modern sensibilities. And both have a love for truth and goodness that few of their contemporaries - who grasp for political power and wealth at any cost - share. This means that they often are out of step with the times, trying to find their own way by the light they have. As Guy puts it in context with scientific discoveries:

‘I am with those thinkers who consider God means us to uncover the secrets of the earth by the slow, sure path of observation rather than mystical formulae in ancient books.’

Sansom makes it clear that this difference in approach has also led to the problems in religion and statecraft as well. Creed always wins out over human realities in this world of the past. And sometimes too often in our own as well.  

While not too many major characters in each book are female - the first book is set in a monastery and the second involves high intrigue -  Sansom make the most of the characters he does employ. Even the minor female characters are complex and have histories that make their actions understandable. As in any era, some are expressly feminist, as in Lady Honor, who greatly enjoys the freedom that her wealthy widowhood brings. Others seek to gratify their ambition through carefully orchestrating their descendents’ social rise, as Mrs. Wentworth does - at any price.

The author also notes one of the interesting results of the Protestant Reformation. Often forgotten in any discussion of that history is that it was the beginning of the loss of authority for institutions in general. With Martin Luther and the rest, the shocking idea that the average (literate) person could and should read and interpret the Bible without depending on the experts of the priesthood - that man needed no mediator to access God - led eventually to the collapse of church authority. In the setting of these books, the State and the Church are struggling to figure out how to function when non-conformists insist on doing and believing as they wish, without granting political loyalty to a particular faction.

This crumbling of authority led to the Enlightenment, of course, in which interpretation of, well, nearly everything, became divorced from dogma. Instead, science, reason, and investigation became the new method for determining truth. I won’t spend too much time on the effect this had on science, human rights, and so on.

I do want to mention that this idea also led inevitably to feminism. After all, if the average person could interpret the Bible and determine his own actions based on his conscience and intellect, why couldn’t women do the same? This didn’t necessarily go over well with everyone. As one traditionalist lawyer says, “Not just apprentices. Even silly little women fancy they can read the Bible now and understand God’s Word.” The same later brags that he has never read the Bible, and never will.

But of course, once you let women think for themselves, they might want to vote, control their own money, determine their own destiny.

Just a couple more little tidbits that should be noted. First, as I am not a fashion mavin, I had to look up “farthingale.” Thank goodness I never had to wear one. Forget petticoats. How about a wicker frame to carry around with you under your dress? Yikes.

A reminder that today's fashions aren't nearly as silly as those of the past.

I’ll end with this one. Early in the book, Shardlake mentions this annoying case he has, where the opposing party...well, I’ll let him describe the sort of person all of us lawyers know all too well:

[H]e was one of those maddening rogues whom lawyers encounter, who take perverse pleasure in spending time and money on uncertain cases rather than admitting defeat and making proper remedy like civilized men.

Dark Fire can be heartily recommended for anyone who loves a good mystery, a good historical novel, or just history and good writing in general.


  1. From your description, it sounds like Sansom has navigated the tension of putting a more forward-thinking character in a historical, non-forward-thinking setting pretty well - i.e., actually constructed sensible reasons why the character thinks and acts the way they do. As I'm sure you know, when this is done badly, the results are pretty painful. Like a recent program I saw that was supposedly about 17th-century MA, but in which John Alden suddenly arrived in Salem talking like a 21st century internet atheist who was there to tell everyone they were superstitious losers. (Though to be fair, it had become pretty clear by that point that that program wasn't really even trying. Oh well. At least I got some good laughs out of it.)

    1. I think one of the reasons Sansom's approach works is that he lets Shardlake wrestle with the conflict between what he used to believe, and what he finds himself concluding. Once, life was simple, and he could get on board with the Reformation. But then, the brutality and excess and greed disillusions him. I suppose his journey sometimes feels like my own.

      You might want to give this series a try - it's quite interesting, and I haven't found myself facepalming over historical mistakes like you do with plenty of historical fiction.

    2. Yeah, I decided way back at your Dissolution review that I would try Sansom out. Then this one showed up and I found out it was a series (yay!). I'm exploring the mystery genre at the moment and I find the English Reformation / Puritans fascinating, so this is probably gonna be a winner.

      Historical mistakes are why I've always been intimidated by actually trying to write any historical fiction. Awfully easy to miss something in your research and then look like an idiot…

  2. Turns out this post kept rattling around in my head all of yesterday, and became germane again this afternoon when I stumbled across this:

    This author is a self-described Thomist and quite obviously Catholic, and I do have to admit that I'm not that well-versed in Thomism, but I just found this whole article (and the comments below it)…I guess I would have to say, ironic, revealing and honest all at the same time. Ironic in that I read it the day after reading your review about how the Reformation brought about the crumbling of authority. Revealing in that, hey, look at that, the entire Reformation era debate about the basis of government still going on. And honest in that, well, I guess it DOES take some serious balls to come out in public in the modern world and admit that you think consent of the governed is, meh, just kind of optional (at least in theory).

    Maybe I'm just stupid and I'm missing something huge (which is possible), but it seems like whenever I encounter Thomists on the internet, the same thing always happens. They are awesome when it comes to deductive proofs of classical theism, etc. Then they start talking politics, history, science, etc., and it all goes to hell, and I'm expected to just forget about the past couple thousand years of things like no birth control, no consent of the governed, etc. causing nothing but mass human misery.

    Sorry. It's just that for once my confused/annoyed facepalming was actually relevant to something I had read immediately before that was written by someone who actually knows what they're talking about…

    1. I haven't really gone down the Thomist rabbit hole yet, although I might at some point. From what I have studied of Aquinas as part of other studies (particularly philosophy), I find there are things I agree with and disagree with. Where people get into trouble is when they expect that a work that is 750+ years old will be sufficient to explain every modern issue. I also find it interesting that some (not all) Thomists seem to be fairly ignorant of Aristotle's ideas, which would seem to be a foundational necessity for understanding Aquinas.

      One thing I have always liked about Aquinas, of course, is his insistence that all truth is God's truth, wherever found. Thus, I think, the hostility from Fundies and from the Presuppositionalist/Theonomist camps.

      I also note that his idea that ethics requires consideration both of the circumstances and the intent, rather than just the acts themselves runs contrary to the Fundie worldview. :)

      On the other hand, his writings on gender are horrid - which is to be expected considering he is starting with Aristotle. After all, he had to start with Aristotle's idea that females were undeveloped, malformed males, and somehow make it work.

    2. Well, to be fair, that comment was more of an in-the-moment rant about particular ThomISTS than an intelligent commentary on ThomISM, which I don't really know enough about on its own to comment one way or the other (other than exactly what I said, that I generally like what little I've read of some Thomists writing about theism - which again, isn't very much). And right after I posted I remembered I had read at least one Thomist who didn't act that way.

      What hit me wrong about that particular article was that the guy is real honest-to-God professor, who has written books that I have seen recommended by intelligent people…and then I visit his blog and what I get is him undercutting the entire foundation of all modern legal theory. To be fair, though, I would wonder if that could be blamed more on his (conservative) Catholicism than his Thomism. Because I can already see very clearly, even just scratching the surface of Thomism, the logic that leads certain Catholics to oppose certain things. The stance on birth control most clearly. (Don't mean this to run down all Catholics, obviously, because they're a hugely diverse set.)

      If I'm correct, then that's probably the most salient example I can find of what you're talking about (expecting a 750+ year old work to just apply without modification or thought). The logic behind the birth control ban made a certain sort of sense when we didn't know how conception worked and didn't have reliable contraceptives except infanticide. But those conditions aren't true anymore. And that's not even touching the evidence that birth control prevents disease, betters outcomes, etc. If Aquinas said all truth is God's truth and you're a Thomist, then according to your own logic you SHOULD be taking those scientific advances into account. Instead we get the pope visiting Africa in the middle of an ongoing AIDS epidemic and telling people they shouldn't use condoms.

    3. You are right that the teachings of Aquinas undergird just about everything in Catholic teachings on ethics. I tend to think that this guy's beliefs on politics and legal theory are at least as influenced by the history of Catholicism as the ultimate (more or less) marriage of church and state - the church as state, if you will - as by the specifics of Aquinas' writings. Aquinas lived and wrote at a certain time of history, and this colors his perspective (just like it did the authors of the Bible - that's another discussion, sort of...) which is why it is weird to consider the most interesting things of his writings how he defended the political and religious structures of his day rather than the ways he pushed back at the beliefs of his era. It is those things, after all, which required the most careful thought.

      Regarding condoms, did you see that Pope Francis actually said that they may be the "lesser of evils" for preventing Zika? That's revolutionary in its own way. Things change on that front during our lifetimes...

  3. Yeah, I did see that. It was Benedict who visited Africa and told people not to use condoms. Knowing what I know about both of them, I'm not surprised at the difference in approach.

    And speaking of odd conservative Catholics, a few months ago I came across a conservative Catholic complaining that Francis is going way too far and that there should essentially be a recall process for the pope. LOL.

    1. Ha! Of course there is a recall process for the Pope!

      As my wife the nurse would say, it's called a "Celestial Transfer." ;)

  4. Re that farthingale: Imagine wearing that in a world heated by open fires. Yikes.

    1. Yeah, not good. Every time someone whines about current fashions, I chuckle. Fashion has always been ludicrous - at least since we could afford to wear clothes for more than just keeping warm and dry.