The Crime Writers’ Association

The CWA Remembers CJ Sansom

The CWA are deeply saddened to hear of the news of the death of one of our greatest crime writers, C J. Sansom. 

Nobody raised the bar for historical crime fiction as high as he did; he wrote with forensic accuracy and passion for the smallest detail. Few writers cared so much about the truth of a book as Chris. His work as a historical crime fiction writer became so successful it opened up a significant space on the bookshelves for what had been up until then a relatively niche genre.

He wrote Dissolution while working as a lawyer in Brighton, but his real passion was history. Chris had studied history at Birmingham University to PhD level. Dissolution was, if I remember, his second attempt at a novel, but when he landed on his subject matter – Tudor England – he found a place where he flourished, bringing an extraordinary passion for history together with a wonderful gift for storytelling.  

When he finished the book, he sent it to a writer he hugely admired – another of crime fiction’s great intellects – P.D. James. Chris Sansom’s own pen name C.J. Sansom – was a deliberate nod to her initials. She loved the book and asked if she could pass it to her agent. 

Dissolution was published to huge acclaim in 2003 and was followed in 2004 by the second in the series, Dark Fire. Shardlake was a great creation. A lawyer, like Chris, Shardlake was also a man with a very strong moral compass, also like Chris, who cared deeply about the unfairness in our society and who loathed living under this Conservative administration. 

A very determined, very private man, he had made a deal with his editor at Pan Macmillian, Maria Rijt, at the very start of their working relationship, that his third novel wouldn’t be part of the Shardlake series. At the time I remember thinking this was a kind of career suicide. Instead, his amazing Spanish Civil War drama, Winter In Madrid, became his best selling book to date. 

His reputation as one of the UK’s greatest crime writers has only continued to grow. Despite the fame, he remained an intensely private man and did very few public events. When he was diagnosed with myeloma after publishing Heartstone, the book in which Shardlake almost met his end on the Mary Rose, he was only given a few years to live. 

Though seriously ill, he continued to write, producing the extraordinary novel Tombland, which was to be his last. Though he wrote the first few chapters of a final Shardlake book, Ratcliffe, he wasn’t able to finish it. I remember him telling me, ‘I think this is going to be my Edwin Drood.’

When the CWA awarded him the Diamond Dagger in 2022, he was very moved by the recognition. In some ways I don’t think he ever quite understood how deeply he was loved as a writer. I had the wonderful task of interviewing him live once at Norwich Cathedral – for the launch of Tombland – and I think he was taken aback by how deeply the hundreds of people who had come to hear him talk cared about his books. 

It’s sad that his death came a few days before the debut of the new Disney+ series, Shardlake, but at least it means that his books will be discovered by a whole new generation of readers and writers.

— William Shaw



Join the CWA

Become part of a thriving community of successful crime writers with invaluable support, expertise and marketing opportunities for all our members.

Advertise with us