In 1543—the time of Henry VIII-Matthew Shardlake a hunchback lawyer, and his Jewish assistant, Barak, strive to solve a string of murders that, they quickly realize, are based on the seven vials in the Book of Revelation (chapter 16). They can almost predict when the next death will happen.

Barak is having trouble with his wife owing to a recent stillbirth that has deeply affected them both and driven them apart. Shardlake’s friend, Guy Malton, a Spanish-moorish physician acts as a medical consultant to their investigation. They encounter a boy and a woman both confined in Bethelham Hospital, the asylum known as Bedlam. A diagnostic dilemma arises over a problem of religious melancholy versus demonic possession.


It seems appropriate that this database recognize at least one of the historical novels of C.J. Sansom. The fourth in the Shardlake series, this historical mystery displays careful contextualization within medical as well as legal history.

The medical interest is in the subplots described above. Malton is an enlightened physician. He reads Vesalius, an important anatomical work that was published in 1543. Anachronistically, however, he studies mental illness and gives a fair accounting of the problem of obsession. Naïve and trusting through brilliant, Malton is hoodwinked by his own assistant who turns out to be a fraud.

Religious tension pervades the story in a manner typical of the era.


Random House Canada

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