The dissolution referred to in the title of Sansom’s novel–the first in a series of novels featuring hunchbacked lawyer and de facto private investigator Matthew Shardlake–refers to the dismantling of Catholic monasteries during the Reformation by King Henry VIII (or, more accurately, Thomas Cromwell). But it could also be applied to the heart and soul of the people of England as they are portrayed at the time, suffering both brutal living conditions and constant reversals regarding what it is safe to say and believe in matters of religion and the monarchy.
Working on a commission (think: “offer you can’t refuse”) from Thomas Cromwell, and accompanied by Mark Poer, a young, idealistic clerk who Shardlake has taken on and practically adopted as a favor to his father, Matthew Shardlake has been sent to a large monastery at Scarnsea to solve the murder of another official who was murdered while investigating monastery finances. Of course it’s an open secret that the first official’s duty was to discover reasons to dissolve the monastery–already a foregone conclusion that will only come more quickly because of the murder–so there are plenty of suspects even among the religious order, and plenty of interesting characters through which to tell the story, including gay monks, orphan girls, penitents, and a sadistic prior.
But solving the mystery will lead to another dissolution, this time of Shardlake’s own idealistic belief about the nature of the Reformation and, in particular, his patron Cromwell’s role in it. Shardlake firmly believes that a drastic change is needed to deal with the bloat and corruption of the Catholic church and monasteries. He begins his investigation thinking Cromwell to be a pious man who pursues the often violent reforms with such zeal because of the strength of his convictions, a belief that is called into serious question when it is all over.
Because of my recently developed obsession with Tudor and Elizabethan England, I probably read this first novel with a bit more generosity than I normally would have… I could understand arguments that it’s a bit too long and at some points a bit too complicated for its own good (one murder soon becomes two, then three). But Sansom has a knack for maintaining the pace of the story while bringing in a wealth of historical detail from a fascinating era. The details and characters–outside of a few obviously intentional examples of fictional license and speculation–felt both true and real, which can be a difficult combination to pull off in either history or fiction. Historical novels too often feel one or the other, containing a wealth of accurate detail without an engaging story or being engaging while straying so far from reality that I wonder why they bothered choosing the historical setting in the first place.
The only significantly off-key note, and one that I attribute mostly to a first-time novelist who is still not sure of his powers, comes when Cromwell flatly lays out the corrupt part he played in the framing and torture of Mark Smeaton and the subsequent executions of Smeaton and Anne Boleyn. If Cromwell’s part isn’t clear enough to readers, or serious enough to account for Shardlake’s reaction to it, I think there are better ways to go about painting that picture than an uncharacteristic admission, even as part of the power play I took it to be.
I’m not sure how many more novels there are (or will be) in the series, and given Shardlake’s growing disillusionment and the historical period in which he operates, the series can’t stay connected to Cromwell for too long, but I look forward to reading more.