Fans of Sansom’s celebrated Tudor mysteries know that he offers far more than the standard murder mystery. His novels surround the formulaic plots with rich historical detail about political turmoil and memorably complex characters. At 880 pages, Tombland is the longest of all the hefty volumes that Sansom has produced, and his research sometimes gets in the way of his formulaic whodunit’s pace and plotting.
This outing puts the brilliant lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, into the midst of Kett’s Rebellion, the 1549 uprising against the unfair privileges of Norfolk landowners. Called to Norwich to investigate a murder involving a Boleyn cousin of Princess Elizabeth’s, Shardlake falls into the hands of the leaders of the rebellion and slowly becomes sympathetic to their grievances. The events of that summer provide an impressively diverse cast of characters for the empathetic Shardlake to investigate and assist, and Sansom masterfully lets the reader experience the highs and lows of life in the rebels’ camp, with all its sounds, smells, and heightened emotions.
\Shardlake is truly a man with a foot in both camps – privileged professional and idealistic commoner – and makes an ideal observer of the wide social pageant of the period. If the procedural part of the novel sometimes seems a little inconveniently structured and overwhelmed by the period details of battle and bureaucracy, it’s worth it to get a participant’s eye-view of the populist rebellion that, although a tragic failure, awakened England’s leaders to the need for reform of their feudal system of land ownership.