Review: Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

Dark Fire is the second in the Matthew Shardlake mystery series.  Shardlake, a lawyer, is capable enough to be occasionally retained by Thomas Cromwell, but his work also takes him to the darker, poorer areas of London.  In this book he’s juggling two such disparate cases.  First, he’s called in to defend Elizabeth Wentworth, a young woman accused of murdering her cousin Ralph by throwing him down a well.  Elizabeth refuses to speak to anyone, behavior which can only lead to a guilty verdict and death.  The court wants to deal with the case quickly — after all, there are hundreds more waiting.  But Cromwell needs Shardlake on another case, and uses his power to buy time for Elizabeth.

Cromwell’s case is by far the more interesting of the two, and concerns a mysterious substance capable of generating intense, destructive fire.  Known as Greek Fire or Dark Fire, the substance could be an important weapon in the King’s quest for power.  Cromwell is under pressure to stage a demonstration for King Henry VIII.  Dark Fire is known to be available in limited quantity, but its properties are not well understood, and the formula has been stolen.  Cromwell offers Jack Barak as an assistant to Shardlake, and the two set off to learn as much as they can about the origins of Dark Fire and the people currently controlling its use in London.  Shardlake finds himself moving in new, influential circles, as a guest at banquets hosted by the aristocratic Lady Honour.  Unlike most people, who see his hunchback as evidence of inferiority, Honour treats him with respect.  The banquets give Shardlake the opportunity to observe others who are influential in the case, including Cromwell’s rival, the Duke of Norfolk.

This being a murder mystery, it’s not too long before bodies start dropping right and left.  The plot is quite tangled, and it’s difficult to tell who’s on the side of good vs. evil.  Meanwhile, Shardlake continues to stay connected to Elizabeth’s case.  There are a few leads to follow up on, and some surprise developments. Thankfully progress is glacial, because he really has his hands full chasing down Dark Fire.  Along the way, C. J. Sansom provides the reader with rich detail that brings 16th-century London to life.  The summer heat exacerbated odors associated with human habitation; women held bouquets of posies close to their faces to mask the smell.  Sanitation techniques were primitive: at one point Lady Honour casually warned an attendant to “watch out for that turd,” and I realized this was probably a fairly common occurrence (ewww…!).  I also enjoyed the book’s historic context (summer of 1540 … Thomas Cromwell … anyone?), and the way everyday murder and mayhem touched the controversies of King Henry VIII’s court.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, by Anthony Powell

I approached the fourth movement of A Dance to the Music of Time with mixed emotions.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three volumes (rating each 4-5 stars), I was ready for more of the same.  But I was also a bit sad to be coming to the end of the series, knowing I would have to leave Nick Jenkins and many, many other interesting characters behind.  And things started off pretty well.  The first novella, Books do Furnish a Room, was set in the post-war period, with Nick entering his forties.  On a return visit to his university, he realizes:

The probability was that even without cosmic upheaval some kind of reshuffle has to take place halfway through life, a proposition borne out by the autobiographies arriving thick and fast — three or four at a time at regular intervals — for my review in one of the weeklies.  … their narrative supporting, on the whole, evidence already noticeably piling up, that friends, if required at all in the manner of the past, must largely be reassembled at about this milestone. The changeover might improve consistency, even quality, but certainly lost in intimacy; anyway that peculiar kind of intimacy that is consoling when you are young, though probably too vulnerable to withstand the ever increasing self-regard of later years.  (p. 3)

Reading these opening pages prompted reflection on the past decade of my life, having just left my forties this year.  I found I could relate to Nick in a different way than before.  Books do Furnish a Room brought new characters into the dance, along with familiar faces like Kenneth Widmerpool, who was introduced in the very first novella and has reappeared in unusual situations, usually when you would least expect it.

Unfortunately, Anthony Powell wrote two more novellas after Books do Furnish a Room.  I found them a slog.  Reading Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies was a lot like watching a favorite television series that has gone past its prime.  The dance metaphor failed to work as well, mostly because so many important characters were lost in the war.  Powell brought in new characters Nick supposedly knew twenty years before, but being unknown to the reader these encounters lacked spark.  In addition, Powell’s writing was strongest in the earlier books, which covered the 1920s through 1940s.  In Hearing Secret Harmonies, published in 1975 and set in the 1960s, Powell comes across as a crotchety old man who couldn’t understand what those crazy hippie kids were up to.  The plot became outlandish, I lost interest, and the last book became a forced march to the finish.

However, when I step back and think about the twelve novellas in their entirety, this is an amazing body of work depicting a specific slice of England in an enormously readable and enjoyable way.

My reviews of the other books in A Dance to the Music of Time:

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement, by Anthony Powell

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is a series of twelve novellas originally published between 1951 and 1975.  Narrated by Nick Jenkins, the story begins during his school days in the 1920s, and continues for more than half a century.  The books are not as much about Nick as they are about people he meets, and how their paths repeatedly cross over time.  Chicago Press published the series as collections of three novellas they called “movements”.  I read the first two movements last year, and discovered a gem of English literature.  The Third Movement is set during World War II; the titles of each novella — The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers — have a distinct military tone.

This installment opens with Nick assigned to a military unit stationed in Ireland.  The war is in its early days, and very few have seen real action.  Nick finds himself banded together with a variety of men, many bankers by trade who cannot relate to his work as a writer.  And there are some from less educated classes whom he would never meet outside the military.  Inevitably, there are connections between new characters and those we’ve met in earlier books, and so the dance continues.

Nick’s military career is a slow one, and almost entirely administrative.  He never goes to the front (isn’t that a convenient way for the main character to survive the conflict?), but the war still takes a personal toll.  Nick experiences his share of loss, and I was struck by the way he often learned of death indirectly, and long after it occurred.  Nick’s personal life advances too, but this is very much in the background.  His wife only occasionally enters the picture, and the reader doesn’t learn much about how the war affected her, even though she would have been devastated by one of the more significant losses in this book.

As I’ve come to expect from Dance, there is considerably more talk than action.  It’s difficult to describe the pleasure that comes from reading these books.  It’s all in the dance metaphor, which is so rich and satisfying.  I love the element of surprise when a nameless character is described at great length, and Powell gradually reveals they are a significant player from a earlier novella.  When new characters enter the story, I look for clues to their significance: will they enter the dance later?  And in what way?

I have only one movement left to read, and I’m torn by wanting to complete the series, and yet wishing it would never end.

My reviews of the earlier books:

2012 Chunkster Challenge

I hadn’t planned to join any 2012 challenges, but Wendy and Vasilly made this one sound so fun, I fell right into their trap.

A chunkster is defined as 450 pages or more of ADULT literature, whether non-fiction or fiction. A chunkster should be a challenge.  eBooks and audio books are not allowed — this is about dragging a really chunky tome around with you until it’s finished.

I’m signing up at The Plump Primer level, or 6 books, and I have a partial list:

  • A Dance to the Music of Time: Third Movement, by Anthony Powell
  • A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, by Anthony Powell
  • Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom
  • Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

I’ll be back with progress reports in my quarterly reading updates.