Category Archives: Book Review

Review: ‘Pompeii’ by Robert Harris

Harris’s fast-paced novel of life, and mass death, in Pompeii during the final days of its existence in AD 79, manages to create an evocative picture of first-century Roman society, in all of its opulence, corruption and squalor. His protagonist – Marcus Attilius Primus – has been sent to the nearby city of Misenum to act as the replacement for his missing predecessor, Exomnius, who was responsible for maintaining the Aqua Augusta, the mighty aqueduct which supplies the region with its water. The solving of the mystery of Exomnius’s disappearance is played out against the lead-up to, and climax of, the Vesuvian eruption, with the latter being described in vivid, and convincing, detail.

It is within the interplay between Attilius and his nemesis, Ampliatus, a sadistic, nouveau-riche, former slave turned regional plutocrat, that the primary drama of the book inheres, and it is in the portrayal of the pursuit, and abuse, of power and wealth that Harris exceeds. Ampliatus proves to be a compellingly repulsive character, an embodiment of the worst in Roman society, whereas Attilius serves as his principled foil. The reality of city politics is portrayed in a manner that is at once, depressingly, recognisable. Harris also provides us with a glimpse of the character of Pliny the Elder, who perished in the tragedy, courtesy of the notes regarding the eruption compiled by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. It is to the latter, of course, to whom we owe our knowledge of what unfolded in Pompeii during that fateful August, with his gift to posterity being honoured by the use of the adjective ‘Plinian’ in categorising the type of eruption observed at Vesuvius.

Harris’s research shows in the convincing detail that he deploys, which is woven into the warp and weft of the tale without being ostentatiously, and incongruously, displayed for the sake of ‘showing off’. The alien world of ancient Rome is thereby rendered almost familiar, despite the attitudinal, and philosophical, differences that framed the worldview of Roman citizens in this distant age. An enjoyable read which I finished surprisingly quickly.

Book Review: ‘The Haunted Hotel & Other Stories’, Wilkie Collins.

Although the named novella takes up almost half the length of this volume, a further eight tales can be found between its covers, a number of which I found more satisfying than The Haunted Hotel itself. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the latter, for I did, but it struck me as being less polished than some of the shorter works.

Whereas Collins is best known for his mystery novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone, with the second title being widely hailed as the first detective novel written in English, he was also rated highly as a writer of ghost stories, and The Haunted Hotel is, unsurprisingly, just such a story. However, the reader has to wait a long time before any form of ghostly manifestation materialises, with much of the novella reading more as a conventional mystery. Although I may be mistaken in taking this view, it struck me that Collins had, perhaps, originally intended his novella to be a full-length novel, but had grown tired of it, and thus decided to abridge it. Thus, the author appears to have employed the device of allowing one of his leading characters to divulge the hidden course of events by passing off his own unrealised notes in the form of notes for an as yet unwritten play. It left me feeling that it could have become something greater than it was.

It was, therefore, the short stories that I found most to my taste in this collection, particularly The Dream Woman, A Terribly Strange Bed, Nine O’ Clock!, and The Devil’s Spectacles. Only the first of these four can be described as a true ghost story, although Nine O’Clock! does feature a doppelganger and deathly prophecy.

The Dream Woman centres upon a premonitory haunting, in which the tale of an unfortunate ostler is recounted by his current employer – the landlord of an inn – to the narrator. It is an atmospheric classic, in which Collins builds an eerie tension that is sure to hook the attention of any lover of a good ghostly yarn. The concluding story in this collection – The Devil’s Spectacles – is a supernatural oddity, and all the better for it. In this, the protagonist is gifted a pair of spectacles by the most unsavoury of characters, and the powers that they bestow upon the wearer prove to be of a suitably Mephistophelian nature; they are not what could be termed ‘rose tinted’. Still, this engaging morality tale possesses a somewhat mythic quality, as well as a devilish dose of humour, and is my joint favourite in this collection.

Overall, although I found some of the tales a little overly melodramatic for my taste, I’d recommend this volume to the thrifty reader who is interested in classic mysteries with a dash of the supernatural.

‘Pagan Britain,’ Ronald Hutton, Yale University Press, 2013.

Professor Hutton is, perhaps, one of the most affable and publicly recognisable academics in Britain today and, arguably, its greatest authority on this country’s pagan history and heritage. In this volume, he sets himself the task of surveying the rise and fall of paganism in our island story, from the distant Palaeolithic to the early modern period. However, whereas the matter of the pagan revivalism of the past century is touched upon, it is not treated in any depth in itself, although it is considered in connection with the retro-projection of its beliefs, and practices, into the distant past. He has previously dealt with the subject matter of the history of Wicca in his book, ‘The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,’ a work that, apparently, caused umbrage amongst certain elements of the contemporary pagan community.  

The primary message that came through in this thorough and engaging treatment of the subject was this: there is much that remains in terms of the material legacy of the pagan past, yet next to nothing with respect to our knowledge of the concrete beliefs and rituals conducted by pagans at various points in the pre-Christian era of our island. Much of what is commonly supposed about the pagan beliefs of the inhabitants of Britain is little more than that: supposition, based upon the most tenuous of textual evidence, and erroneous conjecture arising from the once widespread belief that the uneducated mediaeval populace adhered to a basically pagan set of beliefs beneath a superficial veneer of Christian piety. None the less, it is this very absence of certainty with respect to the beliefs and practices of our pagan past, in which much of this subject’s charm and appeal inheres; it is cloaked in an aura of mysticism.    

Hutton marshals and interprets an impressive array of evidence to provide an outline of developments in ritual practice. From prehistory we by definition have access only to archaeological remains, but this period has bequeathed to us such a rich legacy of different types of ceremonial monument – henges, stone avenues, barrows cursuses, dolmens, etc. – that it is evident, thanks to the development of carbon dating, that beliefs were far from static. From the Mesolithic onwards, there were significant shifts in monumental form, with many sites – the most famous of all being Stonehenge – being refashioned over the centuries and millennia, presumably to keep pace with changing ritual practice and belief. As to the detail of the actual substance of these beliefs – the names of any gods, goddesses and spirits called upon and propitiated, and the mythologies attendant upon them – they will forever remain beyond our grasp. Only with the entry of the island of Britain into the orbit of the ancient literary cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, do we find any indications as to what these beliefs and deities were, and even then, what we are left with is fragmentary and, perhaps, rather tendentious in nature; it does not present us with an objective ethnographic commentary on the beliefs and practices of the ancient Britons. We remain in the historical twilight. 

Rather more is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Roman conquerors, and cult precincts and associated dedicatory inscriptions reveal that many of their gods and goddesses were revered here, often, as elsewhere in the Empire, in syncretistic form with native deities, with the most famous case being that of Sulis-Minerva at Bath. To what extent the coming of these new deities supplanted those already resident in the imaginations and devotional practices of the island’s inhabitants is unknown, but it could be argued that an eclectic form of fusion and co-existence took place, before Christianity asserted its grip.  

One question that will also forever go unanswered will be the extent to which late-Roman Britain was Christianised. Evidence exists – such as from the Romano-British pagan temple at Brean Down – that non-Christian beliefs were still adhered to in the second part of the fourth century, which would be consonant with Julian the Apostate’s (361-363) attempt to revive Hellenistic paganism. However, by the time that Theodosius – the last Emperor to rule over both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire – began to vigorously enforce Christianity as the sole state religion from the 380s onwards, Roman Britannia was already in a position of significant material decline and marginalisation, and would be lost to the Empire in 409 or 410.  

The pagans of post-Roman Britain left us no written record of their beliefs and practices, and all we have to go on are a handful of hostile references produced by Christian scholars such as Gildas and Bede. As Hutton emphasises here, we possess only the most tenuous of knowledge relating to the newly arrived deities beyond their names: Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frigg. Indeed, he calls into question the commonly believed assumption that there was an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre. This appears to possess but the flimsiest of foundations, with Bede’s supposition that Eosturmonuth was named after such a goddess likely to have been a misunderstanding, with the name of the month (equivalent to April), simply meaning ‘the opening month,’ which Hutton suggests could well refer to the unfurling of leaves.  

The material evidence for pagan belief during the fifth to seventh centuries is even more scant than that of earlier eras, for no single pagan temple from this period has been conclusively identified in Britain. What we are presented with, however, are changes in burial practice, that are clearly not Christian, and often include the interment of grave goods alongside the Saxon dead. It seems, however, that once the Anglo-Saxon, British and Pictish elites had adopted Christianity, the new religion readily established itself amongst the mass of the population. What greatly eased this transition, argues Hutton, was Christianity’s ability to present its new followers with an array of saints who functioned in a manner analogous to that of the old gods and goddesses who looked after a particular sphere of life, or a particular place.  

There is much more that Hutton discusses in this book with respect to possible pagan survivals, including mediaeval Welsh and Irish textual sources, as well as folk traditions relating to a parallel supernatural realm populated by fairies, hobgoblins and so on. However, once the pagan Danish settlers had converted to Christianity, it is Hutton’s opinion that paganism ceased to operate as a coherent system of operational belief within the island of Britain. He also dismantles the widely cherished belief in a prehistoric ‘Great Goddess,’ tracing the emergence and development of this concept in modern times, and uses the concept of human sacrifice to show how remains – particularly decapitated ones – can be used both in favour of this theory, and against it. His treatment of these issues, and the subject as a whole, is even-handed, pluralistic and non-prescriptive. He encourages the reader to reflect, and to draw his or her own conclusions with respect to the evidence presented. For anyone interested in this area of our history, this book makes for a rewarding, and essential, read.

 

Review: ‘The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England,’ Keith Thomas, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Thomas Braithwaite makes his will (1607)

Over his long career, Keith Thomas has written a trio of books that are essential reading for anyone interested in the social history of early modern England, with this being his most recent. The theme that it tackles is a perennial one: how to live a good, as in a fulfilled, life. Whereas the reader will encounter goals and attitudes that are not so distant from our own today, there are many beliefs and practices – unsurprisingly found more towards the beginning of the period in question (the book spans the three hundred years from 1500 to 1800) – that are quite unlike those to which all but a fringe few now subscribe. These changes in outlook run in tandem with shifts in the accompanying social and economic order, with the most pronounced transitions during the period in question being associated with a growing commercialism, individualism and secularisation.  

Thus, whereas the mediaeval conception of military glory as virtuous and noble carried over into this period, with martial skills and prowess being seen as an integral part of masculine identity, it gradually ceded its status to the pursuit of wealth, with the military becoming increasingly specialised and professional as feudalism became eclipsed by mercantile, and then industrial, capitalism. The old belligerent ethos was unsuited to the majority in the new commercial age, many of whom now looked down upon the murderous trade plied by those who clung to the ideals of chivalric nobility, or served in the common soldiery. 

One of Thomas’s key observations is that routes to individual fulfilment were vastly more circumscribed at the beginning of this period than towards its end, and alas, many still find that their personal choices are greatly limited by their social and economic status today. Self-realisation is not quite as new a concept as we may often think, and the different ‘roads to fulfilment’ that he sketches – vocational, material, reputational, personal and posthumous – are all at play, to a greater or lesser degree, in our own lives now. 

Thomas’s prose is always a joy to read, being both commendably objective and laced with wit, with contemporary voices from many different stations of life being given the opportunity to address the reader directly, in the form of the many quotations that pepper this text. For those interested in this period of English history, and particularly for those who aspire to write fiction and wish to gain an insight into the varied social milieux of this time, it is an indispensable resource.  

Thomas ends the volume with a quote from a far earlier age – that of Augustan Rome – translated by John Dryden from Horace’s twenty-ninth ode, which is as salutary and joyous now, as it was to its readers in late seventeenth-century England:  

Happy the man, and happy he alone,

He, who can call today his own;

He, who secure within, can say

Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have liv’d today.

Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,

The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate are mine.

Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r;

But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

Book Review: ‘Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural,’ ed. Henry Mazzeo, 1968

An entertaining collection of supernatural tales, some by authors that I have previously read, and others that I have not. What united them for me personally was the fact that I came to them all as a fresh reader, for I had not thumbed my way through any of the stories in this volume before. Although a number of the authors included will doubtless be familiar to horror aficionados, some of them were new to me, even a figure so apparently well known as August Derleth.  

Personal tastes differ, so it is just as well that I persevered reading beyond the first story in the collection – Derleth’s ‘The Lonesome Place’ – which I found particularly grating, owing to the extreme repetition of the term ‘lonesome place’ which seemed to pop up in every other sentence throughout the text. I would suggest, therefore, that a more befitting title would be ‘The Tiresome Place.’ Perhaps it would be unfair to judge Derleth too harshly upon the basis of having read only one of his tales, but if this is stylistically in keeping with his oeuvre, then I shall be steering well clear of anything else that he penned. There was one other story in the collection that I thought to be dire, once again owing to its exceptional repetitiveness – far too many ‘whistlings’ and ‘hoonings’ for my taste – entitled ‘The Whistling Room,’ by William Hope Hodgson. It was thus with something of a sardonic chuckle, having compelled myself to read the story, that I learned that Derleth had been something of an admirer of Hodgson.  

Having gone on, at some length, about what I did not enjoy in this collection, please do not let this deter you from picking up and enjoying this volume, for it contains much that will reward the reader with an interest in the supernatural with many hours of satisfactory reading. Some of the highlights, for me, included ‘Lot No. 249,’ (the original mummy story, set at Cambridge University during the 1880s) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; ‘The Open Door,’ by Margaret Oliphant; ‘The Ghostly Rental,’ by Henry James; ‘The Face,’ by E.F. Benson, and ‘The Grey Ones,’ by J.B. Priestley. The last of these contained a considerable amount of humour, which raised many a smile during its modest number of pages. I shall be looking out for more by Oliphant, Benson and Priestley, as well as by other familiar names in the traditional horror genre who contributed some enjoyable stories to this book, who include M.R. James, Robert Aickman, and H.P. Lovecraft. If I’d have been in Mazzeo’s seat as editor, I would have dispensed with the contributions by Derleth, Joseph Payne Brennan and Hodgson, substituting instead the ghostly tale shown below, although that may have been rather difficult in 1968, given that the author had yet to learn to speak, let alone write.

Book Review: ‘The Stations of the Sun,’ Ronald Hutton, 1996.

Dim and ill-remembered shades of blood-soaked pagan fertility rites suppressed by the Church, sanitised and repackaged for a Christian age; attenuated echoes of a timeless, agrarian traditionalism surviving into the urban and rapidly industrialising present. This was the vision of the folk customs and festivals of the British Isles as refracted through the prism of late Victorian and early twentieth-century folklore and anthropology, disseminated and popularised by writers such as J.G. Frazer and Margaret Murray. It reached its popular apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, finding its ultimate cinematic expression in ‘The Wicker Man’, a film which, rather appropriately, held that Lord Summerisle’s Victorian grandfather – an educated, enlightened, yet somewhat cynical man – had reinstituted a reconstructed ‘lost’ paganism amongst the islanders as a matter of expediency in encouraging them to grow cultivars of crops otherwise unsuited to the Scottish island. He seems a character who would have been very much at home with the theories propounded by Frazer and Murray, but enough of this digression into pagan romanticism and cinematic trivia.  

Professor Hutton’s investigation into the traditions of the ritual year in Britain is carried out with commendable objectivity. Claims of survivals from the pagan past are placed under rigorous scrutiny, and in almost every instance are found wanting, with the very notion of the ‘Celtic’ year and its structure being called into question. What emerges instead is not some dim survival of a lost paganism, but of the lost world of pre-Reformation Britain; it is mediaeval Catholicism, rather than paganism, that would appear to give form to much of our ritual year and its associated customs, although not to all of them. Furthermore, the evidence that he unearths suggests that a number of folk customs that were once taken to be traditions drawn from a timeless agrarian society prove to be nothing of the sort, with many – such as some aspects of mumming – being of a much more recent provenance. Some practices, it would seem, were spontaneous creations of popular culture in a largely pre-literate age, in which a socially licensed breaking of social norms was accepted on the part of the younger members of the community. Halloween and ‘Mischief Night’ are the two notable contemporary manifestations of this tradition of youthful social transgression. 

The most detailed studies into the history of Morris dancing suggest that its first appearance was not in some Arcadian English setting, but in fifteenth-century London. This entertainment was popular at the early Tudor court, but by the mid-1520s Henry VIII had already grown tired of the dance, and had it dropped from his Christmas courtly revels. From London and high society, it disseminated outwards geographically, and downwards socially, so that by the early seventeenth century it had spread to many regions of England as a popular pastime. It is not the survival of a prehistoric pagan fertility dance. 

Hutton’s book thus reveals as much about the preoccupations of late-Victorian and early twentieth-century British society – an obsession with sex, fertility and paganism born, perhaps, of the disintegration of traditional Christian norms of sexual repression thanks to the challenges of Darwinism and the findings of anthropology in colonial cultures – as it does about the origins of our ritual year and its associated customs. Any reader interested in these themes will take much from this book, although dogmatic neopagans may not warm to it greatly.  

The only minor gripe that I have with the publication is that its font size is rather small.

Book Review: ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic,’ Keith Thomas, 1971.

Keith Thomas’s magisterial volume detailing the transformation in educated and popular beliefs relating to matters natural and supernatural in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, is a work that anyone interested in this period should read. No other single book issued since this was published in 1971 can be said to have dealt with this theme more comprehensively, and although the fruit of extensive scholarly labours, copiously referenced and footnoted, it makes for an engaging read. Although my first reading of this was as an undergraduate many years ago, I have lately re-read it for the first time since, and enjoyed it even more than the first time around.  

One of the pleasures of this book is that it provides a window into the everyday beliefs and practices of ordinary people, rather than those on the upper rungs of the social order, although they are not completely neglected. Furthermore, the many anecdotes and incidents that it relates provide rich pickings for the author, and it is one of these bizarre incidents, reported by Thomas, that furnished me with the idea for my forthcoming tale ‘The Cleft Owl.’ 

Whereas beliefs relating to these matters during the period in question – a period of great social, political and intellectual upheaval – were far from uniform, towards its end in particular, the beliefs of the educated elite had diverged greatly from those still adhered to by the uneducated mass of the people. By 1700, Aristotelian scholasticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism and the attendant paraphernalia of beliefs in astrology, occult forces and mystical correspondences had largely been consigned to the intellectual fringes, where they have since remained, supplanted by the rationalistic natural philosophy. Advances in science, technology and – perhaps surprisingly, insurance – served as the solvents in the dissolution of the old beliefs, which still lingered on in the remoter rural communities into the nineteenth century. 

Magic, prophecy, witchcraft and astrology – the outmoded, discredited, untenable intellectual debris of a former era; so one would think, but during the past half century in particular, there has been a recrudescence of interest in each of these, and as for religion, it hardly needs me to draw the reader’s attention to the revival of its poisonous fanaticism across the globe.  

To end on a lighter note, reading this book has, seemingly, and very surprisingly, led me to find an effective remedy for hiccups. As befitting a superstitious folk practice, it sounds ridiculous, and what makes it seem even more so is the fact that it stipulates that the remedy only works for men. This latter assertion with respect to its efficacy I have yet to put to the test, as my other half hasn’t had hiccups since I discovered the remedy, but what I can say is what has happened on the three occasions that I have tried it: my hiccups stopped instantly. Was I surprised? I most certainly was. What is the cure? Well chaps, the next time that you are beset with hiccups, grasp your left thumb in your right hand, and wait. If any ladies amongst you would care to test this remedy, I should be most interested to hear of your results.

Book Review: ‘The Heart of Mendip’, F.A. Knight, 1915.

the-heart-of-mendip-f-a-knight-1915

I was delighted to rediscover this book at a second-hand bookstall in a Somerset market earlier this year, having not peered between its covers in well over thirty years, a copy of it having belonged to an elderly member of my family, now sadly no longer with us. 

This is a gem of a book, and in its tone and execution very much an artefact of the time in which it was written; the product of a late-Victorian scholar with wide-ranging intellectual interests, possessed of a deep attachment to his local patch of native soil, paralleled by an equally extensive knowledge of its people and their stories. Within these pages, the reader will encounter a mixture of history, antiquarianism, natural history, geography and the occasional ghost story. It is the sort of work that one is unlikely to encounter today, insofar as its compass is intensely local – covering only eleven Somerset parishes – yet the author sees it fit to devote 520 pages of text to the stories of these villages and hamlets (and, technically speaking, a town in the case of Axbridge). This allows the author both the opportunity to deal with a diverse subject matter, and yet afford an in-depth treatment for each of his chosen elements.  

F.A. Knight was born in 1852, and died in the year of the publication of this book – 1915 (readers will note from the cover picture that the version I refer to is a reprint published in 1971). It thus marked the culmination of a life’s interests and research into the local history of this area of Somerset, with the opening chapter being devoted to the parish of Winscombe, which is both where Knight was schooled – at Sidcote – and where he later served as a schoolmaster. Those unfamiliar with the area are likely to know the name of only one of the villages dealt with – Cheddar – which is covered in the penultimate chapter of the book, where a good overview of the development of the world-renowned cheese and its production is provided. Knight trawls through the local parish records to tease out the shadows of events and people long since lost to memory, including a local cunning man and wizard whose spirit reputedly returned in the form of a poltergeist (although the term is not employed), and those who met an unnatural fate thanks to participation in the Sedgemoor Rebellion of 1685, or owing to acts of murderous criminality. The gibbet features on more than one occasion. 

This book will be of particular interest to people with an affection for the villages and landscapes that form the focus of this study, although it will possess a wider general appeal for those interested in some of the minutiae of times gone by. We thus encounter, for example, accounts relating to how much churchwardens used to pay for the eradication of ‘pests’ as foxes, ‘grays’ (badgers), polecats, sparrows, moles, magpies and hedgehogs. Knight – unconsciously – tells us a great deal about how attitudes to the natural world have changed since his own day, given that his writing is filled with frequent references to rare birds of one kind or another having been ‘shot’ or stuffed, or having had their eggs taken, without reference to the wisdom, or otherwise, of killing representatives of rare species. He does at least acknowledge the barbarity of bull and badger baiting, and notes with approval that these ‘sports’ were last witnessed in Axbridge during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  

We also catch a glimpse of more turbulent national events that reverberated down to the parish level, such as the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, the scourge of ‘the Turk’ in the form of Algerine piracy and slavery (a peculiar lacuna in the national memory, doubtless today deemed too politically sensitive owing to the thin-skinned sensibilities of their co-religionists who have taken up residence amongst us), and the large numbers of roving Irish displaced by events in their home country during the seventeenth century. There is much in this volume, in the form of anecdotes and the detail of daily life glossed over by grander political histories, that will stimulate the imagination of the author. Some of the names recorded in the local parish registers – such as Blandina, Sexa and Choroty – are a little unorthodox, although a number of them prove to be indicative of imperfect spelling, rather than peculiar local naming conventions. Much charm is to be found in the phonetic rendering of the names as they were once spoken, in a dialect that even Knight acknowledged had been diluted since the coming of the railway to the district in 1869.  

Keen speleologists will also find something of worth here, as Knight himself was an eager participant in some of the early caving on Mendip, and he records a number of the archaeological finds made in the caverns, as well as stories of their discovery and on at least one occasion, of the unfortunate demise of one of the local explorers.  

A general reader, if he or she were to find this to their taste, might award this book four stars, but as I hold a special regard for this part of the country, I hereby declare my partiality and award it a five. I look forward to tracking down Knight’s ‘The Sea-Board of Mendip’, originally published in 1902.

Review: ‘Dissolution’, C.J. Sansom

With prose pedestrian and dialogue stilted, is it any wonder that my attention wilted?  

By the time that I had read thirty or so pages of this book, I had a hunch that getting through it was going to be something of a slog. For the first 220 pages or so, it read like a second draft rather than a polished final product, but to be fair, Sansom thereafter made some effort at fleshing out the rather two-dimensional characters thus far encountered. As this was his first novel, I will be charitable and own that he must have been learning his craft as he went, but there were a number of features of this novel that jarred, including the manner in which the author crowbarred his twenty-first-century preoccupations and outlook into the world of Reformation England. 

Yes, the protagonist Matthew Shardlake may not have been ‘shaped for sportive tricks’, but just how many times did the author need to hammer home the fact that he shared his defining trait with old Crookback himself? It was monotonous. Moreover, beyond the dominating presence of the hump, Shardlake appeared to possess little to distinguish himself from the other underdeveloped characters who populated this work, other than a seeming compulsion to explain the obvious to his younger sidekick. The presence of the latter appears to have been engineered as a clumsy device for explaining aspects of everyday life in Tudor England to the historically unaware reader. Why otherwise, for example, would Shardlake have found it necessary to explain to Mark Poer the significance of All Hallows Eve? Given that church attendance was compulsory during this period and Poer was part of this society and no suckling babe, he would have fully understood what it meant, as well as have been conversant with the customs and rituals observed on this day.  

As for the idealisation of Brother Guy, the blameless, persecuted Moor, and the soon-to-be ‘mud-coloured ex-monk’ befriended by Shardlake, there could be no clearer illustration of anachronistic attitudes being shoehorned into Henrician England. Anachronism also occasionally slipped into the dialogue, with the use of the term ‘pressure point’ making me wince; clumsy evidence of this being an unpolished draft, rather than a finished product. Although I have been reassured that further books in this series are better written, I am not sure that I will read anything else by Sansom, for his style did not grab me, po-faced and humourless as it was. If, however, you are looking for a novel in which a Tudor hunchbacked lawyer endowed with twenty-first-sensibilities finds himself hanging on to a clanging bell in a monastery bell tower, then this is the book for you.