By C. J. Sansom
Review By Patrick Anderson
So what was it like being a lawyer in the court of Henry VIII?
In a word, dangerous.
Henry (1491–1547) is best remembered for having the heads of two of his wives chopped off, but he didn’t mind sending troublesome lawyers to the block as well—or, if the block were booked that day, to the Tower of London to be broken on the rack, or perhaps to be burned at the stake, or drawn and quartered. As a final indignity, Henry might have the offending barrister’s head impaled atop London Bridge, which served the dual purpose of feeding the birds and providing moral instruction for other members of the profession.
C. J. Sansom—born in 1952 in Scotland, now a resident of Sussex, England—was a lawyer before he turned to fiction. Since 2003, he has published five novels about Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer whose intelligence and discretion led powerful advisers to King Henry to call on him for assistance. He’s a good lawyer, a specialist in property law, but here he’s mostly a detective, and the novels are essentially mysteries set against the religious and political turmoil of the Tudor era.
Religious passions inspired much of the era’s bloodshed. The fictional Shardlake met his first great patron, the real–life Thomas Cromwell, when both were young lawyers who shared pro–reform religious views. Henry’s determination to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn—which he did in 1533—led him to break with the Roman Catholic Church and appoint himself head of the Church of England. The break with Rome thrilled the reformers, but soon Henry became more conservative and his underlings began persecuting “radical” reformers over matters of doctrine. To commit heresy—say, by eating meat during Lent, or preaching without a permit, or criticizing the king—could be punishable by death.
Shardlake is a hunchback, an infirmity that caused him to be taunted at as a child, and, as an adult, often to be scorned by everyone from beggars on the street to haughty aristocrats at court. He was a farmer’s son who as a boy dreamed of becoming a priest, only to have his hopes dashed by a monk who told him priests must be created in the image of God, which he obviously was not. Instead, the studious youngster was sent to the Inns of Court in London to study law. But he is unlike most of the lawyers around him, because his infirmity has made him a man of unusual sensitivity and compassion. He often represents the poor against the rich, as Sansom himself did in his days as a legal aid lawyer.
The first novel, Dissolution, is set in 1537, when Shardlake is 35 and a successful lawyer, in part because Cromwell, the king’s most influential adviser, sends cases his way. But, as the novel opens, Shardlake does not welcome a new summons from Cromwell: “I had started to become weary, weary of politics and the law, men’s trickery and the endless tangle of their ways.”
Still, he cannot refuse his patron, who if spurned could be exceedingly vindictive. By then, Cromwell had orchestrated the closing, the dissolution, of England’s countless Catholic monasteries. “The monasteries are a canker in the heart of the realm and I will have it ripped out,” he declares. He might have added that the closings vastly enriched the king, who claimed their lands and wealth for himself. Cromwell, too, became very rich.
However, the forcible closing of monasteries had aroused armed resistance in the north of England that was put down with difficulty, so Cromwell has begun seeking “voluntary” surrenders. He sends lawyers to the monasteries to uncover sexual, financial, or doctrinal misdeeds, and then offers the abbots a choice: They can close their monastery and accept small pensions or they can face legal action and possible execution. Few choose to resist.
Cromwell summons Shardlake because he had sent one of his commissioners to close a Benedictine monastery on the Sussex coast, and late one night the man had his head cut off in the monastery kitchen. Shardlake’s job is to find the killer and hush up the episode, lest other disgruntled papists be moved to violence. Most of the novel is devoted to Shardlake’s search for the killer. We meet various abbots who might have motivation to kill—one has “lain with men,” another is a thief, a third a critic of the king—as well as servants and townspeople. In this novel, and those that follow, Sansom weaves a beguiling mystery. Invariably, after I puzzle over the clues provided, I find myself suspecting the wrong person. This is, of course, one mark of a first-rate mystery.
The story doesn’t end when Shardlake solves the crime. When he reports back to Cromwell, his patron casually admits that he ordered the torture of the men who confessed to being Anne Boleyn’s lovers and thus justified her execution. The astonished Shardlake asks if Cromwell means the men—who were themselves executed—were innocent. Cromwell replies: “Of course they were innocent. No one may say so, but the whole world knows it, the juries at the trial knew. Even the king half–knew though he couldn’t admit it to himself and irk his fine conscience. God’s death, Matthew, you’re innocent for a lawyer.”
Let me note briefly that Hilary Mantel recently has published two brilliant novels—Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—about Cromwell and Henry, but they are quite different from the Shardlake novels in focus (hers are mostly on the royal court, Sansom’s on the entire society); in style (hers are more literary, his more straightforward); and in their view of Cromwell (Sansom’s is darker). Each series is wonderful and they are entirely complementary.
Upon hearing Cromwell’s admission, a disillusioned Shardlake vows to quit the world of politics, but, of course, he can’t keep that promise. If he had, we’d have been denied the rest of this wonderful series.
The second Shardlake novel, Dark Fire, is set in 1540. Following the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, died following childbirth, and his fourth, a German princess called Anne of Cleves, mightily displeased him but managed to escape with her head. That left the amorous king free to pursue a sweet young thing named Catherine Howard.
Meanwhile, Shardlake has taken the case of a girl, the ward of a wealthy family who is accused of killing the family’s young son. The girl refuses to speak in her own defense, which by law means she faces the death penalty. Shardlake is desperate to buy time to persuade the girl to tell him what happened. Just then, his friend Cromwell offers a deal. He will help Shardlake with the girl’s case (for most judges will do his bidding) if Shardlake will help him with an urgent matter of what we might today call national security.
The king has been told that an ancient weapon called Dark Fire, a form of liquid fire that can be propelled to destroy ships or even armies, has been rediscovered and exists somewhere in England. Cromwell orders Shardlake to find this weapon of mass destruction before the king’s enemies do. It is an assignment that puts the lawyer in grave danger. Fortunately, he is assisted by tough, shrewd Jack Barak, a Cromwell protégé, who becomes Shardlake’s bodyguard, friend, and eventual law clerk.
The weapon called Dark Fire is entirely fictional—Sansom usually makes clear what is true and what is invention in the books—but the third Shardlake novel, Sovereign, turns on a real and spectacular event in Henry’s reign, the so–called Royal Progress to the North in the autumn of 1541. The previous year, a rebellion against Henry led by pro-Catholic nobles in the north was put down after Henry broke promises to its leaders and had them executed. During the Progress, Henry, along with his new queen Catherine, hundreds of nobles, and more than 1,000 soldiers, marched 200 miles north to York to awe the populace and allow prominent citizens to swear their loyalty to the king.
Shardlake joins the procession because his new patron, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer—Cromwell having by then lost the king’s favor and thus his head, which was nailed atop London Bridge—gives him the job of ensuring that a captured rebel leader is brought back safely from York to London, where he can be expertly tortured in the Tower. Shardlake hates the assignment but cannot refuse.
During this journey, the dying words of a murdered man in York lead to an unthinkable possibility: That Henry may not be the legitimate king of England. Shardlake cautiously pursues the evidence, even as Jack Barak begins the courtship of a young woman in Queen Catherine’s entourage. To their dismay, Shardlake and Barak witness a scene one night that suggests that the flighty young queen is flirting, or worse, with an equally empty–headed young nobleman. Even to possess such information is exceedingly dangerous.
The most dramatic moment of this eventful novel comes when a powerful nobleman, who is Shardlake’s enemy, has him sent to the Tower to face the brutal treatment for which it was justly famed. The terrified lawyer does not escape unscathed, but happily he survives the ordeal and can continue his adventures. The flirtatious Catherine is not so fortunate: She is beheaded on charges of immorality, like Anne Boleyn before her.
The fourth novel, Revelation, is the one that most directly engages the religious frenzy of the era. It is the spring of 1543, and Henry has grown increasingly conservative. Reformers like Shardlake are fearful, and alleged heretics are burned at the stake. Amid this turmoil, Shardlake takes the case of a boy who is consumed by the fear of damnation. He prays ceaselessly for salvation. When he escapes from his parents’ home and into the streets, he risks being arrested for preaching without a license or even for heresy. The boy is sent to Bedlam, the insane asylum, where Shardlake hopes he can be calmed. Shardlake’s friend Guy Malton, a thoughtful physician, calls the boy’s state “salvation panic,” explaining, “It is a new form of brain sickness, something Martin Luther has added to the store of human misery.”
An even more terrible challenge arises when a lawyer, who is one of Shardlake’s closest friends, is found with his throat cut and his body left in the fountain at Lincoln’s Inn. Other slayings make it clear that a serial killer, an unfamiliar concept in that day, is slaying reformers in ways that mirror the most lurid prophecies in the Book of Revelation.
The search for the serial killer leads Shardlake to meet Lady Catherine Parr, an intelligent widow who Henry is determined to make his sixth wife. However, the lady hesitates; she is, as Barak comments, “Afraid to say yes to the king and afraid to say no.” The king, slender and athletic in his youth, has by his 50s become grossly obese and is cursed with ulcers on both legs that won’t heal and stink to high heaven, all of which leads to endless speculation about his sex life.
By exposing the serial killer, Shardlake endears himself to Catherine Parr, who was one of the killer’s intended victims. After she has agreed to marry Henry, she summons the lawyer to thank him, and he reflects, “I saw the stillness in her, the stillness of one who has placed herself under firm control, who must stay controlled now to fulfill the role she had accepted on that great, terrible stage, the royal court.”
At the start of Heartstone, the fifth of the novels, Queen Catherine, as she has become, summons Shardlake again, this time to ask a favor, which, of course, he cannot deny. The son of one of her beloved servants has died mysteriously, and Catherine asks the lawyer to investigate. The son had been a tutor to the children of a family in the south of England, and Shardlake is soon enmeshed in that family’s dark secrets.
As Shardlake untangles that mystery, a French fleet—larger than that of the Spanish Armada 40 years later—is sailing toward England carrying 30,000 soldiers. English spies think the fleet will attack near Portsmouth, and Henry rides there to rally his outnumbered forces. Shardlake is there, too, as part of his investigation. Seeking a witness, he boards one of the huge English warships in the harbor, where he very nearly dies.
Still, Shardlake cheats death once more, and new adventures lie ahead.
This summary of Sansom’s plots can only hint at all the virtues of these brilliant and supremely readable novels. Sansom’s characters are believable, his knowledge of the period is vast, and his portrait of England is extraordinary. To read the novels is to step into a time machine and emerge in the dirty, dangerous London (population about 60,000) of the 1540s, as wars are fought, heads are lopped off, proud lords and ladies scheme and rise and fall, and thousands of beggars and cutpurses roam the streets. The great English crime novelist P. D. James, after reading the first Shardlake novel, declared that “the sights, the voices, the very smell of this turbulent age seem to rise from the page.”
Sansom’s novels present a few idealistic lawyers like Shardlake (“My integrity in the often corrupt world of the law was my badge, my identity”) and a great many others who are hopelessly corrupt. The novels burst with wonderful detail, as when Shardlake tells of encountering wealthy women who have adopted the French fashion of “wearing mouthfuls of teeth taken from dead people”—false teeth—which he finds “gruesome.” Or his memories of student days at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, with its “long hillock, the sides dotted with rabbit holes, where students would come to hunt their dinner later in the season.” Or the old lawyer who declares, “Law students should work like dogs, that is what they are there for, to learn how to snap and bite.”
During these novels we see Shardlake advance from “just a jobbing lawyer,” as he calls himself, to the rank of serjeant, the senior barristers from whose numbers judges were chosen. Yet despite his success, he remains a deeply troubled man. He seeks to be honorable in a corrupt and violent age, yet he is repeatedly forced to serve his patrons in ways that deeply trouble his conscience. He is bothered, too, to have lost his religious faith after seeing so much hypocrisy and violence carried out in the name of God. Sansom has said that he finds Henry’s age much like our own, in its anxiety and uncertainty, and certainly there are lawyers today who share Shardlake’s anguish at the price one must often pay to serve the mighty.
So what lies ahead for Matthew Shardlake?
Sansom told Sarah Crown of The Guardian that he hopes to write at least three more Shardlake novels. One would unfold before Henry’s death in 1547, and a second during the brief and troubled reign of his son, Edward VI, who became king at age 9 and died at 15.
Sansom’s third projected novel would take place after Elizabeth becomes queen in 1558 at the age of 25. Sansom anticipated such a novel in Heartstone, when Shardlake met with Queen Catherine, who told him that the 11-year-old Lady Elizabeth has asked to talk with him. She proves to be a precocious child who questions him about the difficulties of achieving justice in an unjust world. Her concern was understandable, given that her father had her mother’s head cut off and the girl herself declared illegitimate.
Shardlake tells the girl that lawyers must be impartial, represent all sorts of clients, and seek justice.
Elizabeth ponders this and replies, “Yet still I think justice is no easy thing to find.”
“There, my lady, I agree,” Shardlake replies, and they part as friends.
To see the formidable Elizabeth as queen, 14 tumultuous years later, through the eyes of an aging Shardlake is as desirable a literary encounter as I can imagine—a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Patrick Anderson, a novelist and journalist, reviews fiction regularly for The Washington Post.
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
By Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
Review by Ronald Goldfarb
The first professors were wise men who met and walked with students while discussing issues and teaching rational thinking through discourse. This Socratic Method is still used by modern professors. Readers of Michael Sandel’s books are provided such an elucidating thinking experience. It is no surprise his Harvard classes are presented to wider audiences through online media—so provocative is his approach to exploring important issues.
Sandel’s 2009 book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? was a deserved bestseller. In What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel deals with “the relation of markets and morals” and the impact of market thinking on human behavior. Without saying so explicitly, this new book raises for lawyers serious challenges to the implications of the modern law and economics movement, and to all citizens’ insights into current political debates about the proper approaches to problems of citizenship. No doctrinaire political book, What Money Can’t Buy leads readers to conclusions through real-life examples and questions about current societal practices.
Sandel begins by asking what we think about mundane, everyday practices like cutting into traffic lanes, and then he segues to more profound issues like surrogate pregnancy and immigration. “[A]lmost everything can be bought and sold,” he claims; then he submits examples that surprise and shock. Are there things that money should not buy, he asks, at the risk of the marketplace morally corrupting its participants?
Is it appropriate to outsource military contracts or the administration of schools and prisons? Does commoditization degrade society? Will market triumphalism lead to a moral reckoning? Sandel deals with these questions by proffering an array of specific examples that are eye opening, surprising, and that should lead readers to an examination of what we are doing to ourselves.
Should we be nonjudgmental about the values underlying such practices as paying for a kidney transplant? Is it the same as paying for someone to wait in a line for a ticket to a sports event or a seat at a U.S. Supreme Court argument? What about concierge medical arrangements where people pay to see doctors who won’t see others who do not pay annual fees? Is everything in life a luxury that appropriately awards the financially successful? Should public queues be tools for private gain? Does the ethic of the market alter moral norms? Why not pay someone to serve on a jury for you? Or serve in the military?
Sandel asks if it is corrupt to buy or sell something that should not be for sale. Who decides and on what basis what should or should not be salable? Today, procreation has become part of the marketplace, with sperm and eggs and the carrying of pregnancy salable. Economics traditionally dealt with the allocation of material goods. Should it apply to all human behavior? Is it appropriate to use “financial incentives to solve social problems”? Sandel asks. Pay children who get good grades? Teachers who perform better than their peers? Should employers or insurance companies pay smokers to quit or lose weight? If these practices “induce us to do the right thing,” are they proper, even if “for the wrong reason”?
Is an immigration law appropriate if it rewards foreigners with citizenship if they pay a fee, or serve in the military, or purchase a home? What about those who can’t afford to do so? How about fees and fines? Do they create moral costs? Do pollution fees for carbon emissions undermine values and norms pertaining to energy misuse?
Sandel argues that “markets reflect and promote certain norms.” Money-raising is fair and appropriate in many cases, but what about when an activity endangers a species of wildlife? “[M]arkets don’t pass judgment on the desires they satisfy,” Sandel reminds. Economics is the provision of incentives, others argue, “the cornerstone of modern life.” So if the Inuits, who for centuries subsisted on walrus hunting, choose to lead hunters to kill walruses, the question is whether the killing is “less a sport than a kind of lethal tourism.”
These questions go to the heart of current political debates between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians about the balance between morality, which is “the way we would like the world to work,” and economics, which “represents how it actually does work.” Sandel posits that economics is not a “value-free science independent of moral and political philosophy.” Thus, “[t]he more markets extend their reach into noneconomic spheres of life, the more entangled they become with moral questions.” His conclusion runs contrary to that of economists who state that commodifying goods—selling them—does not alter their character.
In demonstrating how “marketizing a good can change its meaning,” Sandel takes readers across a landscape of current practices that are enlightening and interesting. What kinds of things should not be for sale? Nobel Prizes? Friends?
Here, Sandel’s examples become challenging. There are companies who will apologize on behalf of people. Sell wedding toasts. Write speeches. When I was a speechwriter for a Senate candidate, we subcontracted with a jokester who provided jokes to pepper our candidate’s speeches. Most observers, however, assume politicians do not write their speeches. But would Americans accept what the Swiss government did when it offered to pay villages to accept nuclear waste? Doubtful! This is a kind of bribe, not an assumption of civic responsibility. When AARP asked retired lawyers to work at reduced rates for needy clients, they thought it was demeaning and they refused. But they agreed to do it for free—as a charitable task ought to be.
How about paying Skid Row inhabitants to donate blood? Does it exploit the poor? Erode public altruism? Is it corrosive of the public sense of community? So what if a poor person earns a fee and a patient gets needed blood? Sandel asks whether markets acting out of self-interest spare the community from using up its “limited supply of virtue.” He suggests that “benevolence is not depleted with use but enlarged with practice.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John F. Kennedy after him, urged that “the more a country asks of its citizens, the greater their devotion to it.”
What about corporations that insure their employees and keep their death benefits? The practice now extends to 25 percent to 30 percent of all life insurance, proving that life insurance has “morphed from a safety net for the bereaved into a strategy of corporate finance.” Might it lead, Sandel asks, to skimping on health and safety measures?
A new industry—viatical—arose from the AIDS epidemic. Investors paid AIDS patients to allow them to take over their life insurance policies, giving the patients needed cash on the assumption they’d die soon and the investor would then collect on the policy coverage. Is there a ghoulish aspect to such an investment? Isn’t it simple gambling? Death pools expand beyond AIDS cases, trafficking in investments based on morbidity. Is such a gamble without any social good different from sports bets? Sandel explores the history of the insurance business, the evolution of insurable interest requirements, and the role of insurance in protecting savings. In fact, since 40 percent of life insurance policies result in no death benefit payout because they lapse, if policies are sold more insurance claims will be made, and rates are likely to rise. A secondary market has evolved in which policies of wealthy seniors are bought and sold in packages, like mortgages, creating a $13-billion-a-year business. But the “life settlement” industry perverts the historical rationale of insurance.
The sports world provides further commoditization of rights, some well known, others bizarre. Tennis stars’ uniforms bear advertisements. Player cards and memorabilia sell. But did you know that one NBA player’s championship ring was sold? A baseball player’s used chewing gum sold for $10,000 online; another player’s bone chips from an elbow operation were auctioned on eBay and bidding reached $23,600. (eBay stopped the auction, citing its policy against the sale of body parts and remains.) Ballpark names are now sold to corporations, as are desirable seats and even subway stops. Drinks and airlines become the official owners of teams. A Russian rocket was emblazoned with a Pizza Hut logo. Ads are posted in public toilets. Products are mentioned in books and movies for a fee. Horses are turned into billboards. How tawdry can marketing get? Is it corrupting? A couple advertised the naming rights to their child for $500,000—but got no takers. Imagine a child named Milk of Magnesia.
There is no end to how heretofore noncommercial properties have been commercialized. Parks and forests are named for companies, police cars sport supermarket ads, fire trucks are plastered with fried chicken ads, and police holding centers post ads for lawyers and bondsmen. Public schools get free TVs in exchange for airing programming with commercials, free school curriculum materials contain ads, and one Colorado school posts ad space on its student report cards.
Sandel suggests that these practices are corrupting consumers and are evidence we have become a “culture staged in the ethos of consumerism” that objectifies and demeans citizens. His conclusion: “markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch,” so citizens should care about where markets belong. He asks his readers: “Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”
Think about it! I’m Ronald Goldfarb, and I approve Sandel’s book!
Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington D.C., attorney, author, and literary agent who reviews regularly for Washington Lawyer.