Summer, 1545. England is at war. Henry VIII’s invasion of France has gone badly wrong, and a massive French fleet is preparing to sail across the Channel. As the English fleet gathers at Portsmouth, the country raises the largest militia army it has ever seen. The King has debased the currency to pay for the war, and England is in the grip of soaring inflation and economic crisis. Meanwhile Matthew Shardlake is given an intriguing legal case by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr. Asked to investigate claims of ‘monstrous wrongs’ committed against a young ward of the court, which have already involved one mysterious death, Shardlake and his assistant Barak journey to Portsmouth. Once arrived, Shardlake and Barak find themselves in a city preparing to become a war zone; and Shardlake takes the opportunity to also investigate the mysterious past of Ellen Fettipace, a young woman incarcerated in the Bedlam. The emerging mysteries around the young ward, and the events that destroyed Ellen’s family nineteen years before, involve Shardlake in reunions both with an old friend and an old enemy close to the throne. Events will converge on board one of the King’s great warships, primed for battle in Portsmouth harbour: the Mary Rose..
Shardlake has two main causes to follow in this book: the current Queen Catherine Parr (latest wife of Henry VIII) has asked him to investigate that the wardship of two orphans, one of whom has subsequently died. On his way down to the Solent, he also decides to investigate the case of one now agraphobic woman who has been “living” in Bedlam for 19 years despite having no commitment papers.
As his investigations continue it appears the two cases are linked. Waters are muddied by lies, murders, threats and the wider case of Henry VIII preparing for war with the French – again.
The descriptions of the practicalities of war are good – the dirt, the poor food, the fleas, the desertions, the ships gathering in the Solent.
I did find that the secondary story line of the Bedlam investigation was a little forced in order to bring the main story to a head.
I have read the Shardlake books as they’ve come out, which has meant that in some cases there’s been a big gap between stories, leading me to forget much of what has gone on before. There’s a couple of (to be honest) unsubtle references to what has happened before, and some of the characters have been met before with a long term grievance between them and Shardlake.