Penguin Books, 2003, 481 pages
This riveting debut set in 1534 England secured C. J. Sansom’s place “among the most distinguished of modern historical novelists” (P. D. James). When Henry VIII’s emissary is beheaded at an English monastery, hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake is dispatched to solve the crime. But as he uncovers a cesspool of sin, three more murders occur - and Matthew may be the next target.
English history has taken a back seat to World War II in my recent historical interests, but I still tend to like any historical novel set in English. Dissolution is a book to bring back memories of Renaissance Faires, where actors prance around pretending to be King Henry or various other Tudor bigwigs. Of course Renaissance Faires have actual toilets and food that has to pass county safety inspections, and nobody can actually be beheaded for blaspheming or insulting the King. Not so in 1534, when Matthew Shardlake, a clever and and principled lawyer, is dispatched by the king's minister, Thomas Cromwell, to investigate the murder of one of his men at a monastery.
After Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England, he began the process of confiscating Church property. Monasteries were dissolved, the monks forced into retirement, and all their lands and treasure flowed into the king's coffers. Initially he did this selectively - monasteries that swore to follow the new "reformist" rules, including teaching in English instead of Latin, and forswearing their loyalty to Rome, were allowed to continue on, more or less. Those that resisted got dissolved and torn down. In practice the King's men went looking for excuses to disband the monasteries, because the king wanted that land.
So when one of the king's men turns up dead, it seems like a perfect opportunity to close the monastery where he was murdered. The problem is that there was a nasty rebellion a few months ago and the king can't afford a repeat, so everything has to be done "properly." Hence Matthew Shardlake, a London lawyer, is sent with a naive young assistant to "investigate." What Cromwell really wants is for Matthew to do a quick open-and-shut investigation and declare someone guilty, so Cromwell can begin the process of dissolving the monastery. But Matthew Shardlake, a genuine believer in the Reformation, is also a genuine believer in truth and justice. The sort of person who always finds himself in trouble in a dirty world. So when things don't add up as neatly as he'd like, and then there are more murders, he has to stay at the monastery and continue his investigation while Cromwell is impatiently stamping his feet and muttering dire warnings from London.
I am not an English historian - Sansom gives every indication of having done her research, but a subject like the English Reformation generates debate to this day. Was Henry VIII really the big, fat ratfink he is usually depicted as? Was Anne Boleyn framed? Was the Church a corrupt institution that needed reform? Sansom's fictional treatment of events inevitably takes a point of view that seems generally grounded in fact, but a lot has to be speculation. Certainly she depicts Thomas Cromwell as quite a villainous figure.
Matthew Shardlake is the proverbial honest man who finds himself faced with uncomfortable truths when his ideals run aground against political reality. He's an interesting character who no doubt has additional trials ahead of him. The monks, sheriffs, peasants, and lords who populate the book are likewise an interesting assortment of innocent and wicked, each acting out of complex motives.
I figured out who the murderer was as soon as the character was introduced, and even made a good guess as to the murderer's motives. Of course the plot introduced a few twists which I could not have predicted, but it generally followed the course I expected. So it's not a story that will drop any huge surprises on you, but if you like Tudor intrigue and English history, this was a satisfying, well written mystery that will have me returning to the series.
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