C.J. Sansom, Mystery Novelist Drawn to Tudor England, Dies at 71


“Oh, goody! An 800-page novel about the peasant uprisings of 1549!” Marilyn Stasio, the longtime mystery and crime reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, began a column in 2019.

It was an assessment of “Tombland,” the seventh work of historical fiction by C.J. Sansom to feature Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer-turned-detective whose exploits solving chilling murders in Tudor England come steeped in suspense and granular historical detail. Readers are made privy to the court intrigues of Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII, eavesdrop on women arguing in a market stall, and inhale the stench of London streets.

Ms. Stasio’s enthusiasm was real, not snarky. “Sansom describes 16th-century events in the crisply realistic style of someone watching them transpire right outside his window,” she wrote.

Mr. Sansom, who earned a Ph.D. in history and a law degree before turning to writing in his late 40s, quickly becoming one of Britain’s most popular historical novelists, died of cancer in hospice care on April 27. He was 71.

His death was announced by his publisher, Pan Macmillan, which did not say where he died. In 2012, Mr. Sansom disclosed that he had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, but said it was in remission after treatment. The disease returned during his work on “Tombland,” forcing him to quit writing for six months. He eventually resumed working two hours a day and finished the book, his last to be published.

He died just days before the May 1 streaming debut of the series “Shardlake,” on Disney+, an adaptation of his novels starring Arthur Hughes in the title role and Sean Bean as Cromwell.

“An intensely private person, Chris wished from the very start only to be published quietly and without fanfare,” Maria Rejt, his longtime editor and publisher, said in a statement.

In Mr. Sansom’s Shardlake novels, the reader is borne along by galloping narrative and expository dialogue that can seem like Wikipedia entries dramatized. He did not enjoy the prestige of such novelists as Hilary Mantel or Maggie O’Farrell, who also wrote of Tudor times, a period whose soap-operatic court intrigues have been grist for recent movie, television and stage productions.

Mr. Sansom’s lawyer-turned-detective hero combined his first career as a solicitor and his love of murder mysteries

Shardlake’s physical deformity, a hunchback that manifested at the age of 5 and for which he is openly mocked in a superstitious age, carries certain parallels to Mr. Sansom’s own childhood as an outcast. In 2018, he disclosed in a deeply personal essay in The Sunday Times of London that, beginning at age 4, he had been bullied at the private George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. He bore the scars long after, living a solitary life.

“All my life I have found it impossible to trust others, or to allow them to get close to me,” he wrote.

His first book, “Dissolution,” is set in a remote monastery in 1537, as Henry VIII is dispossessing Catholic monks of their lands and riches after the king’s rupture with Rome. Shardlake is sent there by his patron, Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, to investigate a murder. He finds corruption, sexual depravity and more suspicious deaths.

Published in 2003, “Dissolution” was a popular success, and Mr. Sansom was signed to a multibook deal. He went on to publish six more Shardlake mysteries over 15 years. More than three million copies are in print.

His second installment, “Dark Fire” (2005), set during a sweltering London summer, includes child murder and culminates in Cromwell’s real-life execution in 1540. A reviewer, Stella Duffy, writing in The Guardian, praised Mr. Sansom for offering a dizzying window on the times: “Tudor housing to rival Rachman, Dickensian prisons, a sewage-glutted Thames, beggars in gutters, conspiracies at court and a political system predicated on birth not merit, intrigue not intelligence.”

Apart from the Shardlake series, Mr. Sansom also wrote two other commercially successful historical novels, “Winter in Madrid” (2006), set during the Spanish Civil War, and “Dominion” (2012), which imagines a post-World War II Britain in which Winston Churchill was never prime minister and homegrown fascists rule the realm.

Besides their precise plotting and historical verisimilitude, the appeal of the Shardlake novels is the psychological realism of Mr. Sansom’s main character, a thoughtful and humane but socially awkward lawyer whose character echoed aspects of Mr. Sansom’s social isolation.

The emotional abuse he experienced during his hellish schooling, he wrote, could most likely be traced to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which was not diagnosed at the time. He was mocked by other boys and some teachers for being “odd” and ungainly, for breaking into tears easily and for being a perpetual distraction. At lunch and other breaks, he hid in empty classrooms or under a pile of chairs covered by a fire curtain.

“I did have friends from time to time,” he wrote, “though my endless talking would drive them away.”

At 15, he attempted to die by suicide and was committed to a mental hospital for a year.

The A.D.H.D. symptoms eventually receded, and he went on to earn bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in history from Birmingham University. He later switched to studying law and worked for 11 years as a lawyer, during which he told himself that he would find time to write after retirement. When he inherited a modest sum after the death of his father in 2000, he took a year off from the law to try his hand at a novel.

Though success made him wealthy, the childhood bullying — which Mr. Sansom clarified was not sexual and rarely physical — always shadowed him. “It’s like a dog — if you keep kicking a dog, it expects to be kicked,” he told The Sunday Times in 2018. “And I’m afraid that, having been kicked for so many years, the fear of everyone turning around and kicking you again never goes away.”

Christopher John Sansom was born on Sept. 19, 1952, in Edinburgh, the only child of Trevor and Ann Sansom. His father was an English engineer who worked in naval research; his mother was Scottish. The home, he once said, was “Conservative with a small c and a capital C.”

Mr. Sansom, who never married or had children, left no survivors.

At his death he was working on a new Shardlake novel, “Ratcliff,” about a 1553 expedition to find a route to China around the top of Norway. His editor, Ms. Rejt, said that “his worsening health made progress painfully slow: his meticulous historical research and his writing were always so important to him.”

Of course, there was no Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Morse in Tudor England: London’s first detective force was not organized until the 1800s. Mr. Sansom recognized the anachronistic aspects of his signature creation, but he was unconcerned.

“It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to write a character well in the past who is not a projection back of modern sensibilities,” he told The Guardian in 2010. “My defense would be that the 16th century was the time when rational, skeptical inquiry was beginning. This is the age of the humanists; we’re leaving medieval thought patterns behind. I’m not saying a man like Shardlake did exist then, but he could have, where even 20 years earlier he couldn’t. That’s enough for me.”



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