CJ Sansom death: Author who created Matthew Shardlake dies aged 71

CJ Sansom, the author who created the character of Matthew Shardlake, has died aged 71, his publisher has announced.

The writer – full name Christopher John Sansom – was best known for the historical novels following the 16th century lawyer-detective who solves crimes while avoiding political intrigue caused by Henry VIII.

In a statement, Sansom’s publisher said: “It is with immense sadness that Pan Macmillan announces the death of CJ Sansom. Chris’s first novel, Dissolution, which introduced readers to lawyer Matthew Shardlake, was published 21 years ago and won legions of fans.

“Chris wrote six further novels featuring Shardlake and two standalone historical novels, Winter in Madrid and Dominion, which were also huge bestsellers, and have all been applauded by readers and critics alike.”

Sansom’s books have inspired a TV show, Shardlake, which is set to air on Disney+ from Wednesday this week, starring Arthur Hughes as Matthew Shardlake and Sean Bean as Thomas Cromwell.

His agent Antony Topping said it was an “extraordinarily strange coincidence” that Sansom died just days before a new generation of fans will meet his character Matthew Shardlake through the forthcoming adaptation.

“This is also a moment for which Chris’s established fans have been waiting a long time,” said Topping.

Sansom will be remembered as one of Britain’s most successful historical crime writers (Alamy)
Sansom will be remembered as one of Britain’s most successful historical crime writers (Alamy)

“Chris was so proud of all the work and determination that went into bringing the novels to our television screens, which I hope will bring an entirely new audience to the books.”

Sansom, who will be remembered as one of Britain’s most successful historical novelists, was born in Edinburgh in 1952 and went on to study for a PhD in history at the University of Birmingham.

He retrained and worked as a solicitor in Sussex, until he became a full-time writer. He used his love for both law and history to create his debut novel Dissolution, which is about monastic treachery and death. It was also the book that saw the creation of his cult character Matthew Shardlake, who would go on to appear in subsequent sequels.

The author won many accolades for his work. In 2022, he won the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for his outstanding contribution to the genre. Despite his acclaim, Sansom did not seek the limelight and kept his life private, away from the public eye.

His longtime editor and publisher, Maria Rejt, said: “An intensely private person, Chris wished from the very start only to be published quietly and without fanfare.

Sansom’s colleagues remembered him as someone who did not seek the limelight (PA)
Sansom’s colleagues remembered him as someone who did not seek the limelight (PA)

“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.”

“He was working on his new Shardlake novel, Ratcliff, when he died but his worsening health made progress painfully slow: his meticulous historical research and his writing were always so important to him.”

“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.”

Topping remembered Sansom as someone who “did not seek the limelight”.

“[He preferred] 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,” said Topping. “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.”

Author William Shaw, a friend of Sansom, said in a tribute on Twitter/X that the crime writer has left a “massive hole” in the industry.

“No other writer in crime fiction cared as much about how to represent truth as Chris did. He worked with phenomenal diligence to unearth the facts behind each of his stories,” he wrote.

Shaw recalled the first time he met Sansom, in a writing class, and the moment their tutor’s “jaw dropped to the table” when Sansom read out the opening paragraphs of what would become his hit debut Dissolution.

“We stayed friends. He was always loyal to our book group. Two of the novels include dedications to us. When he gave us copies, we always checked to see if our names were in the back. They always were.”

Shaw said he was sent the first 20,000 words of what would have been Sansom’s next book, Ratcliff.

“Set in London at the dawn of Elizabethan mercantilism... it would have been wonderful if he had been able to finish it,” said Shaw.