Last updated May 15, 2023 | Listicle |

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From Tudor England to Civil War Spain and even a reimagined 20th-century Britain, C. J. Sansom’s nine novels have captivated readers and made the author one of the best-known 21st-century writers of historical fiction. Armed with a PhD in history, Sansom’s great skill is that his impeccable research never dominates but is featherlight on every page. As such, Sansom’s novels provide vivid, richly textured settings without ever losing sight of historical plausibility and the way fallible human characters might react to events.

We thoroughly recommend reading all of C. J. Sansom’s books, but here is our ranking in ascending order:

9) Dominion

Probably the most divisive of C. J. Sansom’s novels, Dominion chronicles a Britain where Churchill stood aside for Lord Halifax and Britain made peace with Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. That intriguing premise sets the scene for a novel that poses some interesting questions about how a weakened, collaborationist Britain and a post-Hitler Germany might have interacted in the 1950s. Yet while there are some timely reminders about how easy it is for nations to lose themselves and embrace jingoism, it arguably lacks some of the elegance of the Shardlake books and of Winter in Madrid, its fellow standalone.

8) Dissolution (#1 The Shardlake series )

This is where it all began for Matthew Shardlake. Dissolution sees the lawyer sent to a Sussex monastery to investigate the murder of one of Cromwell’s commissioners. The novel is a tautly plotted closed circle mystery, made more powerful by the knowledge that we are witnessing the last days of England’s monasteries. Dissolution bears all the hallmarks of Sansom’s brilliance. This novel is narrower in scope and geography than its sequels, but not automatically poorer for that, and in fact this is many people’s favourite of the Shardlake series. If you like this novel, you’ll probably enjoy all the follow-ups, but that’s not necessarily as true the other way round, which, along with the lack of Jack Barak, is the reason for its lower ranking.

Reader comment!

“Reminiscing over my encounters with Matthew Shardlake is like recalling the history of a familiar friendship. The start of this rich and rewarding relationship – Dissolution – would be my choice as my favourite of C. J. Sansom’s series. The first page turns, and we are plunged into Reformation England, as seen through the eyes of an increasingly cynical lawyer, but into a darker, more sinister world than literature often takes us. With more twists and turns than Hampton Court maze, Dissolution promises us that this friendship will never lack in intrigue, and its evocation of Tudor life is addictive; you HAVE to read more!”

7) Revelation (#4 The Shardlake series)

Unsurprisingly given its name, there is more than a touch of the apocalyptic about the fourth Shardlake novel. Its England is a frenzied place, its King increasingly unpredictable on the brink of his sixth marriage. Meanwhile, the national psychosis parallels a murder case that takes Shardlake to Bedlam. Revelation is perhaps the darkest of the series, featuring its first truly twisted killer. It is undoubtedly compelling, nowhere more so than its crescendo-like climax. However, Sansom doesn’t need psychopaths to work his magic, and he is arguably more effective when dealing with pragmatic or passionate brutality.

Author quote!

Revelation takes a little time to get its main plot rolling, but it is very skilfully structured – not an incident is wasted – and once the killer’s intentions become clear, don’t expect to put the book down until you’ve seen it through to the apocalyptic finale.”

— Stephanie Merritt, aka S. J. Parris, writing for the Guardian.

6) Heartstone (#5 The Shardlake series)

A wronged ward and a trip back to bedlam may not sound like a recipe for a gripping thriller, but such is Sansom’s gift. Dispossession is the theme of the day, and so these twin subplots mimic the national threat of imminent invasion by France in 1545. From the moment Shardlake boards the pride of the Tudor fleet, The Mary Rose, Sansom expertly pulls at the strings of dramatic irony. The reader, unlike Shardlake, Barak, or the unfortunate souls on board, knows that the ship will sink. Its presence is a tease throughout the novel, one which ultimately results in an immensely satisfying, if heart-breaking, set piece.

5) Winter in Madrid

Set in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war, this is an engaging, melancholy spy novel that offers all of C. J. Sansom’s trademark immersion. Like Tudor London, Sansom’s Madrid is a world of yawning political and religious chasms. Onto either side of that divide, Sansom transplants a public-school rivalry and a woman loved by two men. A slower burn than the Shardlake series, and full of flashbacks, Winter in Madrid bursts with haunting, poignant language and provides a thrilling finale.

Author comment!

We asked historical crime author Ovidia Yu to comment on her favourite C. J. Sansom book, and she, like us, chose Sovereign:

“My favourite of C. J. Sansom’s novels is Sovereign, the third Matthew Shardlake mystery. This book embodies all I love most about historical mysteries. I got new-to-me facts (like ‘mouldwarp’ and Cecily Neville), a historical perspective on today’s world (the foolish, tyrannical King publicly mocking Matthew for his physical disability), and it’s a ripping good read that ends with a climactic twist and a touch of romance.”

Find out more about Ovidia Yu on her website.

4) Tombland (#7 The Shardlake series)

Set amidst one of the least known but most dramatic events of the Tudor age, Kett’s Rebellion, Tombland captures all the heady, doomed idealism of so many revolutionary causes over the years. The zeal and community spirit of the camp is beautifully undercut by the knowledge that there might be a murderer at large. The longest of the Shardlake books, at times the whodunnit plays second fiddle to the sweep of history, but it’s a pleasure to explore the often-overlooked protectorate of Edward Seymour, and to travel to a Norwich on the brink of siege. As Shardlake is forced to choose between his politics and his friends, Tombland is a reminder of just how much, and just how plausibly, our protagonist has been shaped by his experiences over the course of seven novels.

3) Lamentation (#6 The Shardlake series)

Henry VIII is on his last, gouty, legs in this novel where family is at the fore. With Barak now a father and attempting to stay out of trouble, Shardlake takes on a new apprentice, Nicholas Overton, a young gentleman recently disowned by his parents. The absence of a family to call his own is beginning to be keenly felt, and no more so than when Catherine Parr, for whom we discover Shardlake has long harboured a crush, asks him to take on a case which pits two siblings against each other. Lamentation also introduces a certain William Cecil and a young Princess Elizabeth, giving hope to readers that Shardlake will live on beyond Henry.

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2) Dark Fire (#2 The Shardlake series)

The second Shardlake novel sets the tone for the rest of the series, mixing the author’s gift for deftly plotted murder mysteries with real historical stakes, in this case the need to recover the secret formula for a lethal weapon stolen from Cromwell’s alchemists. Shardlake also gains a new sidekick. Jack Barak is an instant upgrade on Dissolution’s Mark Poer, providing a pragmatic philosophy that constantly challenges Shardlake’s reforming zeal, and streetwise skills that get the pair out of more than one scrape.

1) Sovereign (#3 The Shardlake series)

During the Northern Progress, Shardlake and Barak are charged with safely delivering a dangerous prisoner to the Tower of London. Throughout, Sansom strikes a perfect balance between historical events and imagined subplots. For the first time in the series, we meet King Henry VIII, while the depiction of the Tower is one of literature’s most vivid. These two events, and the terror, turbulence and humiliation that go with them, are perhaps the two apex moments of the series, key milestones in Shardlake’s shift from devoted reformer to a more sceptical figure. Through them, Sovereign cements its place as the best of Sansom’s novels, a classification the author himself has agreed with in the past.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this ranking of the C. J. Sansom novels, compiled by Edward Willis, content editor for The History Quill.

Looking for more historical mystery suggestions? Read on for another 10 book recommendations for fans of C. J. Sansom.

10 historical fiction book recommendations for C. J. Sansom fans

1) The Giordano Bruno series by S. J. Parris

On the run from the inquisition on a charge of heresy after he was caught reading Erasmus on the loo, Giordano Bruno is every bit as rich and attractive a character as Matthew Shardlake. The charismatic Dominican Monk has fled to Elizabethan England, where he tries to secure his position by making himself useful to the realm. The same background that enables Walsingham to implant him into universities, embassies and conspiracies as a spy and detective means that Bruno is regularly mistrusted as a foreigner. His battle to thrive in this closed-minded world, alongside tightly plotted murders and an engaging ongoing love story, makes these books a must for fans of historical mystery.

2) The Wyndham and Banerjee series by Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee’s fast-paced series takes us to a noisy, pungent post-WWI India, a country beginning its pushback against British rule. With the edifice of empire slowly crumbling, colonial Calcutta is brilliantly rendered as a world of expats and civil servants jostling for advancement and fighting to keep control of an India that is more home to them than England could hope to be. The lead characters, former Scotland Yard detective and now opium addict, Sam Wyndham, and Sergeant “Surrender-not Banerjee” are an excellent combination.  

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3) The Marwood and Lovett series by Andrew Taylor

A century after Shardlake’s exploits, Andrew Taylor’s evocative, gripping series takes us to Restoration England. Taylor’s London is one still full of mistrust, a generation after the murder of Charles I and now literally rebuilding after the great fire. The first in the series, The Ashes of London introduces us to James Marwood, a pleasingly conflicted creation, as the man charged with hunting a killer through the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral and its surroundings, ably supported by Cat Lovett, a mysterious woman he pulls from the ashes.

4) The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

This deeply unusual mystery from 1951 will delight and perhaps enlighten readers interested in Plantagenet England. Unlike the period novels on this list, The Daughter of Time follows a convalescing 20th-century detective who alleviates his boredom by investigating the mystery of the murder of the Princes in the Tower. By treating the case as if it were a contemporary police inquiry, Alan Grant concludes that Richard III may be innocent after all.

Author recommendation!

For those looking for another classic of crime fiction, Andrew Taylor has an additional suggestion:

“John Dickson Carr, the Golden Age crime writer, was an American who lived much of his life in England and died in 1977. His books are mainly set when they were written but he also wrote a number of historical crime novels. Two of them, which I read when I was a child, proved unexpectedly influential: The Devil in Velvet (1951) and Fire, Burn! (1957). They are both timeslip novels in which someone from the twentieth century – a historian in the former and a Scotland Yard officer in the latter – finds himself playing detective in the past. The historian is obsessed by an unsolved murder case in Restoration England, and the policeman is flung back to skulduggery at the very birth of the London police force in 1829.

The timeslip mechanism won’t appeal to everyone (the devil himself features in the first novel), but Carr was a good amateur historian with a knack for vividly portraying the past. He proved you could combine the genres of history and crime – which led me eventually, and by a circuitous route, to The American Boy and the Marwood and Lovett Restoration series. But I decided that the timeslip device was not for me…”

Find out more about Andrew Taylor on his website. 

5) The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Fans of Dissolution will enjoy this monastery murder set in 14th-century Italy, a novel that Sansom has admitted joking about in the first Shardlake novel. The Name of the Rose is intensely intellectual and intricately plotted. Fictional friar William of Baskerville investigates a series of murders that unfold against a detailed background of theological debate, in particular a dispute about the meaning of laughter. It is one of the best-selling novels of all time and was also turned into a film starring Sean Connery.

6) The Blake and Avery series by M. J. Carter

Reclusive genius Jeremiah Blake disdains The East India Company’s arrogance, but when his former teacher, the poet and explorer Xavier Mountstuart, goes missing in rural India, Blake teams up with young, conservative, empire man, William Avery, to investigate. The series is full of panache, action, and tight plotting. The first novel, The Strangler Vine, presents a vivid portrait of 1840s India before the subsequent books relocate to Victorian London.

7) Fatherland by Robert Harris

Those who enjoyed Dominion’s unstitching of the strands of history will enjoy Robert Harris’s page-turning novel that opens on the eve of a victorious Hitler’s 75th birthday. Kriminalpolizei detective Xavier March collaborates with American journalist Charlotte Maguire to investigate the suspicious murders of a string of senior Nazi officials. In doing so, he discovers a great secret from the war years, a revelation that the Nazi government will kill to protect.

8) The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel transports readers to gold rush New Zealand where newly arrived prospector Walter Moody accidentally interrupts a clandestine meeting and is hurled into a succession of mysteries. Part mystery, part ghost story, the novel is carefully structured, with characters representing signs of the zodiac and chapter lengths calibrated to match the waning of the moon. The novel never suffers for this attention to structure, and Catton’s languid, striking prose propels the book forwards.

9) The Crown Colony series by Ovidia Yu

Set in 1930s Singapore, Yu’s Crown Colony series are engrossing crime thrillers featuring excellent female characters in particular. Yu’s protagonist is Singapore local Su Lin, who has a limp brought on by childhood polio but earns a job with the police in colonial Singapore, giving Yu a perfect opportunity to explore racial and political tensions in the interwar period. The third novel in the series, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery, was shortlisted for the CWA historical dagger in 2020.

10) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Fans of the murky Spain depicted in Winter in Madrid will revel in this excursion to 20th-century Barcelona. While grieving for his mother, Daniel Sempere is drawn into an atmospheric mystery when he discovers that someone is destroying every volume written by a certain Julian Carax, and that he, Daniel, may now have the last copy in existence of a strange book called The Shadow of the Wind.

For more historical fiction book suggestions, take a look at our list of 30 of the best historical fiction books.

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Let us take the hard work out of it. Get curated book suggestions tailored to your genre preferences. Sign up now to get started – it's free!