Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sovereign: Roi Noire

(reflection on SOVEREIGN, third in C. J. Sansom's series of detective stories featuring Matthew Shardlake.)



In Raymond Chandler's noir novels, Marlowe narrates his pursuit of leads across LA, into clubs and bungalows and hotels, where he often meets with violence.  He thinks of himself as tough and cynical, but he's never cynical enough to mistrust the right person.  By the time I reach the end of a Chandler novel, I've long forgotten what Marlowe was looking for in chapter one, and I don't care:  Marlowe's toughness, integrity, and naivety make him a great companion for the journey into darkness. (Read my in-depth study of Chandler http://smootpage.com/books/Chandler.htm)

England in the time of Henry VIII's brief marriage to Catherine Howard provides C. J. Sansom with a background every bit as dark and labyrinthine as 1940s LA, dominated by duplicitous and brutally violent men in authority, with cruel Henry VIII setting the tone and the agenda.   Most of the action takes place in York, decorated for the King's entourage during his royal "progress" and seething with resentments and conspiracies. 

So Sansom has half of the noir formula right, and I intend to read the rest of the series.  Still, on the off-chance that Mr. Sansom might be Google surfing, I'll offer a couple of suggestions.    While Shardlake, the "crookback" lawyer, certainly gets into physical scrapes and scary situations, he is a narrator jealous of his own authority, wrapped up in his own back-story -- pun accidental -- and cerebral.  Compare him to Marlowe, who never tells us of his past and who never thinks ahead more than one step at a time. Shardlake is a Sherlock Holmes / Marlowe hybrid, and it might be better to see the next story narrated instead by Shardlake's Watson, named Barak.  Sansom, through Shardlake, is a bit fussy about details of plot in this third book as in the first one.  While I enjoyed the book, I often felt that we were going back over the same territory.   A model better than Holmes's Watson might be Nero Wolfe's Archie Goodwin.  Rex Stout was able to have his noir and intellectual games, too, having an active, impulsive, hot-tempered agent to mediate a sedentary detective's ratiocinations. 


1 comment:

Susan said...

A different narrator might be a nice change, but-- as you'll see when you read REVELATION-- Barak has his hands full with his own personal problems. Lots of nice detail on Tudor plumbing and dental care though.