Dark Fire is the second in the Shardlake series, and it’s another good one. It starts quite quietly. A girl has been accused of pushing a boy, her cousin, down a well. She has refused to speak since the incident and won’t even plead at her trial. Shardlake is asked to represent her and tries to have her declared incapable. The judge decides she isn’t incapable and must be ‘pressed’ till she pleads – or dies during the process. Shardlake is surprised when the judge changes his mind and grants Shardlake two weeks to persuade the girl to talk. Then he learns that Thomas Cromwell has put pressure on the judge. Cromwell wants Shardlake’s help with a task that must be completed in two weeks. The time allowed for the girl’s case is Shardlake’s ‘reward’.
The task Shardlake has been set is to find the formula for Greek Fire, an incendiary substance used by the Ancient Greeks. This is the Dark Fire of the title. Cromwell knows his influence with King Henry has been weakened by the unhappy marriage to Anne of Cleves. He hopes that Dark Fire will restore that influence. The two men who demonstrated Dark Fire to Cromwell are found murdered, their workshop wrecked and their formula missing. The more Shardlake investigates, the higher the matter seems to go and the more the death count rises. Eventually he uncovers a plot to topple Cromwell. At the same time he tries to find out what really happened to the boy in the well. What he discovers tears the boy’s family apart.
Once again the historical background to the novel is well researched. Historically, there never was an attempt to find the secret of Dark Fire, but Sansom makes it plausible. The story also explores how far a family will go to protect itself, even to the extent of allowing an ‘outsider’ to be condemned instead of the guilty person. Although Jack Barak isn’t always likeable, I was pleased when Shardlake offered him a job as his assistant. I look forward to reading more about him.