By C.J. Sansom.
John Boleyn, a somewhat distant relative of the Lady Elizabeth’s, has been accused of murdering his wife, Edith, by bashing her brains in before sticking her headfirst in some boundary stream with her legs apart. As luck would have it, the woman had been to see the Lady Elizabeth not long before her death.
As a consequence, Matthew Shardlake is dispatched to Norwich, accompanied by Nicholas Overton and Toby Lockswood (who has local knowledge), where Boleyn is to be tried. As chance would have it, all the old gang are in Norwich, too, including Jack Barak whose wife, Tamasin, has forbidden him from speaking with Shardlake. Of course, Jack’s too vital an ally for the lawyer not to rope him into his investigation.
The solution to the murder seems to be intractable. For one thing, Edith Boleyn vanished nine years previously, and as a consequence, Boleyn married his mistress, Isabella. Certain local landowners certainly want to see Boleyn dead so that they can acquire his lands to enclose them to graze sheep. His twin sons, Gerald and Barnabas, are certainly vicious psychopaths, and their grandfather, Gawen Reynolds, is a vile, misogynistic sex pest.
Boleyn is tried and convicted by a deeply biased jury, forcing Shardlake to play the pardon which the Lady Elizabeth gave him (along with various injunctions about keeping her name out of the business). Such an application should save Boleyn from being executed, but the instructions to that effect “go missing”, and it’s only through our bent-backed lawyer’s direct intervention that the man survives being hanged.
The investigation into Edith’s murder makes no progress and is derailed for several hundred pages by the Kett rebellion. England has been in a state of uproar with landowners kicking tenants off their land and enclosing it so that they can raise sheep. Because of this, there have been rebellions across the country. Meanwhile, the Protector, the Duke of Somerset, has been conducting a disastrous war in Scotland and generally appeasing the rebels.
When Shardlake leaves Norwich for a time, he gets caught up in the Kett rebellion. Lockswood becomes a high-ranking member of Kett’s entourage, but is not above spreading rumours about Shardlake and Overton (as members of the gentleman class). For a time, Shardlake assists the Ketts with legal matters to ensure their propriety.
In the first battle against the establishment, the rebels are victorious. It is with the approach of the second battle that Shardlake realises who the murderer is, and the murderer realising that Shardlake has guessed, captures him and Overton to use them as part of a human shield of gentlemen. The boys escape and manage to return to Norwich, where they convince they Earl of Warwick that they were only obeying orders.
They then go and confront the other killer, who gets what’s coming to him. Afterwards, Shardlake goes to Hatfield where the teen termagant, Elizabeth, has a hissy fit, throws an ink pot at him, and dismisses him from her service (although Parry assures him that he’ll be serving the girl again soon enough).
Shardlake returns to London where he’s reconciled with Barak’s wife, but has left behind many brave men, women and boys who died fighting for a better life.
I was about 20% or so into the book and wondering why I seemed to have been reading for quite sometime and yet making comparatively glacial progress. Tombland is 880 pages long. Once Shardlake gets involved in the Kett rebellion, he has little opportunity to investigate the case against John Boleyn and the main plot fades from view, becoming little more than a separate book. When Shardlake does finally realise the truth, the big revelation is a rather bloodless thing, lacking the drama of “The murderer is someone in this room”.
In a similar vein, the confrontation with the killer’s sidekick is resolved by a third party who also, conveniently, disposes of himself, but by the time the entire affair has been resolved, it’s as if Sansom had run out of steam.
As for the resolution of various problems, I feel that a lot of it was contrived; or cleverly plotted, if you like. At one stage, I was beginning to suspect that Sansom was going to kill Shardlake off, but then he found a way for him to return to the establishment in spite of his clear sympathies for the rebel cause.
Tombland is really two books – Shardlake investigates: The Case of the Inverted Wife and Matthew Shardlake and the Rebels of Mousehold. The latter seems to be an indulgence which contributes little or nothing to what is supposedly the main plot of the book and tends to bury it to the point that any revelations about Edith Boleyn’s killers are met with a mostly indifferent shrug.
It’s difficult not to read Tombland as Tom Bland and then expect a picaresque novel about some ne’er-do-well, who’s a decent bloke at heart, but some what undisciplined. [I think that’s the plot of Tom Jones –ed.] Tom Bland would probably be a shorter book. In fact, Tombland is a district in Norwich from the Old English tūmland, which means “empty ground”. Ironically, it was also tomb land, having been used as a burial site during one stage of its history.