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Maria Rejt Remembers C.J. Sansom

Posted on 9th May 2024 by Mark Skinner

The sad passing of C.J. Sansom robbed the world not just of more exquisitely crafted fiction but also of a compassionate and kind-hearted man. In this short piece, Sansom's editor Maria Rejt reflects on her relationship with the creator of the bestselling Shardlake novels.  

Chris Sansom was one of a kind. The gentlest, most modest and courageous of men, a radical spirit who believed passionately in social justice and an author who leaves a remarkable body of work, he wanted only to be known and remembered through his books. And what an astonishing and enduring legacy he leaves us.

In two decades seven Matthew Shardlake novels were published and two 20th century thrillers Winter in Madrid and Dominion, both of which showcased his deep commitment to history and immense imaginative powers.

I was lucky enough to have known Chris for twenty two years, working with him as his editor on each of his nine novels, and since the incredibly sad news of his death, it has been a comfort to read the countless messages and articles by those who have been touched by his writing. 

His readers come from all walks and ages of life, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, a former (female) Prime Minister, and my young nephews who would badger me constantly for any updates on a new Shardlake. It seemed that each reader had something in common: once you had read one Shardlake novel you just had to read them all. So what was the magic that made Chris’s writing so immersive and special?

I think it was his agent, Antony Topping, who nailed the answer in a recent article in The Times when he said that Chris ‘identified a tipping point in history and animated it through character’. And his observation led me to remember one of Chris’s novels in particular, his fifth Shardlake, Heartstone, which takes as its tipping point Henry VIII’s disastrous invasion of France and the French naval counter- strike in the summer of 1545. 

He had delivered a draft to me in the spring of 2009 and unusually asked if we could delay publication till the following year as there was a key piece of writing still to be done. He wanted to work on the back stories of some of those soldiers and sailors conscripted to fight in the King’s doomed war, the more to show them as human beings in their own right. And his extra loving care with these ‘minor’ characters led to one of the most extraordinary denouements he had ever written - as we came to read his  heartbreaking description of the sinking of the Mary Rose, and the deaths of some of the brave souls we had met along the way. 

Always meticulous in his research and plotting, sure-footed in the structuring and pacing of each of his novels, Chris never shied away from the bleak realities facing those without a voice, living in the terrible world of a despot’s whim and fury. 

But he gave them a friend in Shardlake, and by extension Shardlake became our friend, too.

So as to Chris’s legacy, for me it is this.

He took us by the hand to show us another time, so that we could better understand our own.

Good night, my dear friend, and thank you. 

Comments

Tom Bell

Several years ago I was hunting for a summer read in your Coleraine branch in Northern Ireland. I can only say that out of so many books, with their brief hand written reviews , "Dissolution" jumped out at me. I made my purchase and since then have read all the Shardlake novels. I can only thank C.J. Sansom for marvellous stories that have been my joy with every new story.

Tom Bell
27th May 2024
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RegB1957

I was being carted off to hospital because of COVID and had the wit to pick up a book to fill the hours. I had bought Tombland soon after it came out in paperback as a whim and was yet to read it (I have a habit of buying books and not reading them for months if not years); I have not regretted that particular purchase. Since then, I have heard (on audiobook) the whole series and look forward to the pleasure of actually reading them. I am delaying that moment to savour CJ Sansom's delicious writing all the more.
I'm constantly hearing rumours of a new Shardlake in the offing, indeed the obits suggested he had been working on a new book when he sadly died. I hope the publisher will consider asking another worthy writer to finish what CJ Sansom could not. No idea who that could be but there are precidents (Jill Paton Walsh for Dorothy L Sayers for instance). Still, whoever they bring in, it just won't be the same.

RegB1957
26th May 2024
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Helen Condliff

I discovered C.J Sansom, through a random selection for our Reading Group - Winter in Madrid was a real page turner for me, an unforgettable story and characters. This book is now one of my all time favourite reads, what a sad loss to good literature.

Helen C

Helen Condliff
13th May 2024
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Alison Gibson

I first read Dissolution because I am a Thomas Cromwell fan and Shardlake worked for Cromwell. I was instantly hooked by writing that combined meticulous research and historical accuracy with the sights, sounds and smells of Tudor England. Shardlake retained more of his principles than Cromwell did and he always strove to do the right thing by people, whatever their situation or social status. I have introduced so many to the series and the excitement and anticipation about each new novel was always richly rewarded. The books just got better and better and you felt that you were there alongside Shardlake and Barak. The strength of his work is supported by the excellent Winter in Madrid and superb Dominion. He will be very much missed, but has left us with such treasure.

Alison Gibson
13th May 2024
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Josie Remzi

A truly brilliant author and what a wonderful legacy he leaves for us all. I have enjoyed all his books and my thoughts go out to all who knew him.

Josie Remzi
12th May 2024
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Pam Hunter

Thank you for the comments about C J Samson. Somehow one felt he was a friend and will be sorely missed. So young to die. It is ironic that he died just before the film of one of his Shardlake novels is to be released. I do hope it introduces more to his glorious books. I also enjoyed Winter in Madrid as I had little knowledge of the Spanish Civil War. Dominium was a brilliant idea of what might have happened if Churchill has been pushed out in those early days of the war. It is surprising that these have never been filmed. The details in his books are amazing and seem to be very accurate. I understand we was writing another Shardlake novel; might someone be able to complete it?
Pam Hunter

Pam Hunter
12th May 2024
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Joyce Mitton

When we went to the Mary Rose Exhibition in Portsmouth Dockyard one of the staff told us how often Mr Sansom would visit and stand in front of the huge painting of the battle where the Mary Rose was sunk and make note towards his meticulous research. Like everyone who read one of his novels she had to read the complete works. I think people learnt more history from him than they did at school. A great talent, sadly missed.
J Mitton

Joyce Mitton
12th May 2024
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Caroil

What sad news. I have enjoyed the Shardlake series over and over again. I shall read them all again this summer, hours of enjoyment, can’t wait. I love to introduce friends and family to the series and have also recommended them to strangers in book shops who were just browsing. What a marvellous legacy Mr Sansom has left, thank you.

Caroil
12th May 2024
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Donna Wilson

I really enjoyed reading your tribute to C J Samson. My neighbour and I devoured his Matthew Shardlake series, which transport one to Tudor times, to experience the thrill of the chase as Shardlake navigates the dangers of life in and around the Tudor court, as well as trying to keep himself safe from vagabonds in the city or the countryside, whilst all the time delving for clues before yet another victim succumbs to the killer. What a talented author C J Samson was. It was lovely to hear from his editor that he was also such a kind and caring human being. The Shardlake series are among the books I’ve most enjoyed reading in my life, which is so far the same length as C J Sansom’s - 72 years.

Donna Wilson
12th May 2024
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Judith May

All my life an avid reader (I'm 84) and am astonished that I hadn't found the Shardlake stories before now - they would have been a godsend during lockdown! However just recently I found Mr. Sansom's magic words and have started Dissolution. I know now that I must not miss a line of his writing, as each sentence is absolutely necessary to the whole story. He will, I'm sure, be sorely missed by so many. Judith May

Judith May
12th May 2024
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