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.