CJ Sansom, author of the Shardlake novels, dies aged 71 | Books

CJ Sansom, author of the Shardlake novels, dies aged 71 | Books

CJ Sansom, the bestselling author of Dissolution, Winter in Madrid and Dominion has died aged 71, having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer that affects bone marrow, in 2012.

His publisher confirmed the news, noting that Sansom died on 27 April, just days before Shardlake, the TV adaptation of Dissolution starring Arthur Hughes and Sean Bean, is released on Disney+ on 1 May.

Sansom was one of Britain’s bestselling historical novelists, known in particular for his mystery novels featuring barrister Matthew Shardlake, set in Tudor England. He won a number of awards throughout his career, most recently the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger award for his outstanding contribution to the genre.

His longtime editor and publisher, Maria Rejt, said Sansom “wished from the very start only to be published quietly and without fanfare. But he always took immense pleasure in the public’s enthusiastic responses to his novels and worked tirelessly on each book, never wanting to disappoint a single reader.”

“I shall miss him hugely, not only as a wonderfully talented writer who gave joy to millions, but as a dear friend of enormous compassion and integrity,” she added.

Born Christopher John Sansom in 1952 in Edinburgh, the writer was the only child of an English father and a Scottish mother, whom he described as “traditional Presbyterian” and conservative “with a small and a capital C”. He developed socialist political leanings in his teens, and went on to study history at Birmingham University, attaining first a BA and then a PhD, with a thesis on the British Labour party’s policy towards South Africa between the wars. Later, he retrained as a lawyer and worked as a solicitor in Sussex, until he became a full-time writer.

His debut novel Dissolution, the first in his Shardlake series, was published in 2003, a classic closed-setting mystery set in a fictional monastery in Sussex on the eve of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. It was an immediate bestseller and was nominated for two categories in the 2003 Crime Writers’ Association Dagger awards. Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter called it “extraordinarily impressive”.

Six further Shardlake novels were published, and Sansom was working on the eighth in the series, Ratcliff, when he died. “His worsening health made progress painfully slow: his meticulous historical research and his writing were always so important to him,” Rejt said.

“The problem with history – and the further back you go, the truer this is – is that there are all sorts of gaps,” he told the Guardian in 2010. “With Tudor times, information is sparse: things have single or contradictory sources. But where there are established facts, I do everything I can to insert the story around them.”

More than three million copies of the Shardlake novels have now been published, making it one of the most successful crime series of all time.

Antony Topping, Sansom’s agent, said: “Chris did not seek the limelight, preferring to be known through his novels, and so in comparison with his fame and reputation relatively few people were lucky enough to know the person behind the work. He had an immense, far-reaching and deeply humane intelligence. His fans can see this in the novels but he applied it equally in his everyday dealings with friends, in his politics and his charitable acts.”

“He had a loathing of injustice of any kind and a special contempt for bullies,” Topping added. “At the same time he had a joyful and piercing sense of humour which he would spring on you, with an attempt at a straight face, when you were least expecting it.”

Sansom’s final published novel was Tombland, in which Shardlake is working for the 15-year-old Lady Elizabeth in 1549, two years after her father Henry VIII’s death. Shardlake is sent to Norwich to investigate a murder case involving Elizabeth’s distant relative, John Boleyn, and his estranged wife.

“Shardlake is a superb creation, who gains more substance with each new book”, wrote Stephanie Merritt in her Guardian review of Tombland. “He questions and challenges the political shifts of his age while remaining entirely plausibly shaped by them.”

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