Longtime readers of this superb series will know what to expect on every level: sharply drawn characters, particularly Shardlake himself, who has grown into one of the most well-textured leading characters in the entire genre; fully realized historical settings, in this case not only the cut-and-thrust politics of the royal court but also the multifaceted nature of Kett’s Rebellion; and most of all the sense that these sumptuous books are more Tudor historical novels that happen to feature murder mysteries than they are murder mysteries that happen to take place in Tudor times ... Kett’s Rebellion is an inspired choice on Sansom’s part for a real-world pivot on which to turn the major events of the novel, and readers will learn a great deal about the movement’s leaders, aims, and progression, not only from the novel itself but also from the author’s supplementary essay on the subject. But if Tombland has a flaw, it’s that by abandoning so conspicuously the brevity that is the hallmark of a tense tale of murder, it makes its own whodunit elements feel irrelevant. Considering how intensely satisfying every novel in this series is, it will feel like heresy to suggest this latest one might have benefitted from some editorial pruning, but I’m sure I won’t be the only reader thinking it.
Not to be treated lightly. Its length hints at its ambitions. Here is a Tudor epic disguised as a historical crime novel ... Sansom has the trick of writing an enthralling narrative. Like Hilary Mantel, he produces densely textured historical novels that absorb their readers in another time. He has a PhD in history and it shows — in a good way. He is scrupulous about distinguishing between fact and fiction. (Typically, the last 60 pages of Tombland consist of a substantial historical note and a bibliography.) He also relishes the language of the time. It’s difficult not to warm to a book in which typical insults are ‘you dozzled spunk-stain’ or ‘you bezzled puttock’ ... Is Tombland unnecessarily long? Probably, but I’m not complaining.
The novel’s murder plot rather slips into the background, as Sansom creates a vivid picture of life in Kett’s camp outside Norwich, as the rebels prepare to take the city; the echoes of a popular leader promising to lead desperate people against self-serving elites are there for readers to interpret as they wish ... Tombland is more of a grand historical epic than a tightly packed whodunnit, like some of the earlier novels; but 800 pages in Shardlake’s company will always fly by.
Sansom leads us around the local countryside with the same scrupulous authority that he describes Fleet Street or the City of Westminster. He’s also particularly good at writing about shit, because the streets and people are frequently covered in it. Sansom’s England smells as authentic as it looks ... If this isn’t a vintage instalment in the series, then, it’s not due to a dearth of scholarship, but to a dearth of mystery. Sansom seems to bore himself with the murder of Edith and so devotes most of the novel to the revolting peasants and their ringleader ... it’s all too predictable what is going to happen to Kett and his fellow insubordinates. Kett’s Rebellion is on Wikipedia, for one thing ... And, oof, the bleakness of Tombland is also hard at times. As well as the longest of the books, this is Sansom’s most depressing, with torture, child abuse, and rape all rife in 1540s Norfolk.
Sansom recreates this hopeful yet fleeting and doomed moment with sensitivity and sympathy, evoking a remarkable rebellion that sprang from the trauma of social change ... its legacy is palpable, speaking loudly to modern immiseration and failures of social justice ... it’s obvious that this time Sansom deliberately chose the grandeur of an epic over the pace and scale of a thriller. Some sections would have benefited from a degree of editorial tightening, but the bigger canvas is used to add nuance to feelings and relationships, and, like Brueghel, to fill a frame with the hurly-burly of 16th-century life ... Street scenes are vivid and varied, with cramped tenements, smoking chimneys and brimming sewer channels ... Sansom’s resurrection of the past is both exotically alien and, in its political dynamics and emotions, all too familiar ... One of Sansom’s finest achievements is his exploration of memory. The privilege of hindsight is not denied to his characters, who reflect on the past as it is to them, distant and near, to make sense of their changing situation.
Although the main storyline is sometimes lost in all the hurly-burly, Sansom handles his huge cast with aplomb. This is a totally immersive and vividly written tale: compelling reading for history lovers and crime aficionados alike.