It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers it has ever seen. And under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: dissolution.
But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s commissioner, Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege.
Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes…
Dissolution is set in a very interesting period in history and one I’m not overly familiar with beyond reading Alison Weir’s biography of Henry VIII and seeing the first three seasons of The Tudors. Most of the historical fiction I’ve read is set earlier or Elizabethan and later. So it was interesting to look beyond the court, somewhat, and not focus on the wives-question, but to take a look at what the consequences of Reformation and dissolution were for the rest of the country.
Matthew Shardlake is an interesting character. As a lawyer, he’s part of the quickly growing middle class, or as Sansom puts it: ‘… the ‘new men’, the emerging capitalist and bureaucratic classes, men of property without birth.’ (p. 443) He’s dependent on the patronage of a powerful man, Cromwell, but prosperous enough to consider servants and peasants beneath him. This gives him enough social standing to move about freely, especially once in possession of the papers naming him Cromwell’s commissioner, but at the same time sets him outside the true circles of power. Shardlake is an easy character to like; a self-made man, one with a serious disadvantage as a humpback in an age where physical imperfections were still seen as a mark of evil and as such often disparaged and harassed in his youth. His past however, hasn’t caused him to become bitter and while concious of man’s aptitude for cruelty, he still holds to his ideals.
By pairing him with the much younger and far more naive and sweet-natured Mark Poer, his protégé from his home farm, we not only have a foil for Shardlake’s more cynical observations, but a dissenting voice among the reformers as well. It is Mark who questions Shardlake’s easy dismissal of the accusations of wrong-doing and perjury levelled at Singleton and Cromwell, and Mark who voices clear doubts about the validity of the Reformation or at least the true motives of the Reformers. Another great foil for the Reformer Matthew is Brother Guy, whose Moorish descent makes him as much Other as Shardlake and whose quiet, devout dignity and strong Catholic faith serve to show the other side of the coin. He also forms another sounding board for Shardlake to bounce ideas off, though to a much lesser extent than Mark.
The Reformation is a complicated historical event. Instigated by Luther’s apocryphal posting of his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and aimed at reforming the Church back to its more humble origins, away from the ostentation, corruption and politicking it had sunk into, it was a truly theological movement at the start. The Reformation in England more resembled a political power struggle started by a king bent on having his own way, clad in the guise of a religious revolution. While there were many truly devout reformers, many of them seem to have been opportunistic land-grabbers. Shardlake is confronted by Reformist political expediency when he encounters Cromwell’s ruthless role in Queen Anne’s fall from grace. I liked that this discovery didn’t take away from his beliefs and stance on theological doctrine, but it did diminish his naive faith in his patron. The sense of loss and desperation of the monks, both those genuinely devout and those just distressed by losing their cushy place, was tangible and I could really feel for the devout brothers who saw the monastery as a refuge from the world and not as a different arena to gain secular power. It made a good contrast to the Reformist point of view the book is written from.
The monastic setting was very interesting, as it easily created a sort of ‘Orient Express’-like closed circle mystery, were the number of suspects truly is finite due to the enclosed nature of the setting. The murder mystery was fantastic; while I wasn’t completely surprised by the culprit’s identity, their motives were surprising. Sansom manages to drop very clear clues into the story, all the while keeping you distracted with some very plausible alternatives. It is the kind of sleight of hand that happens right in front of you, but you keep blinking at the wrong moment to catch it.
I loved Dissolution, the story was easy to get lost in and also easy to return to when I had to put it down. Like the best historical novels do, it’s made me want to research the period further. If only I had more hours in the day! Still, it is a sign of the quality of this book that it inspired this desire in me. Thank you to Amanda for sending Dissolution to me as part of World Book Night. If you weren’t lucky enough to get a free copy on World Book Night, alas! But be sure to pick up a copy at your local book store or library, as it a good read, both for lovers of historical fiction and crime fiction.