Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review Club: Dark Fire

by C. J. Sansom
Historical Mystery

The second Matthew Shardlake Mystery finds the hunchbacked lawyer once again working for Henry VIII's chancellor, Lord Cromwell. This time Matthew is on a search for a supply of Greek Fire unearthed in the demolition of a London monastery. But before he can get close, people involved start dying and Matthew himself is targeted.

Cromwell sends him a helper/bodyguard in the form of Jack Barak, the descendant of a converted Jew. Barak is Cromwell's man, but he comes to respect Matthew and they start to work well together.

A secondary plot involves the niece of one of Matthew's clients who is accused of murdering her young cousin. Matthew and her uncle believe she is innocent, but she refuses to defend herself. Cromwell's interference buys her, and Matthew, some time to save her life, as long as Matthew finds the dark fire first. In the meantime, Matthew flirts with Lady Honor, a wealthy widow, and gets assistance from his friend Guy Malton, an apothecary and former monk.

Sansom paints a detailed picture of life in 16th century London from the fading glories of the monasteries to the ordure in the streets. We see the splendor in wealthy households and the extreme poverty of the masses. Barak helps Matthew to examine his own attitudes toward those "beneath" him, much to Matthew's dismay. Jack is a good addition to the series and I hope to meet him again in later mysteries.

The search for Greek fire is entirely fictional, but in the Author's Note, we learn that dark fire, as it was also called, was apparently crude petroleum the Greeks found bubbling out of the ground in the Middle East. The Byzantines knew of it and developed some kind of apparatus that allowed them to use it as a weapon, sort of a Medieval flame thrower. After the fall of Byzantine Constantinople, the method of making Greek Fire disappeared. Sansom's fictional alchemists search in vain for the formula for dark fire, not realizing that oil from the Middle East is the main ingredient.

I found the story very interesting, and I like Matthew as a sleuth and as a man. Recommended for fans of historical mysteries.


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@Barrie Summy