Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

Reviewed by Rima Walker

picture6Set in 16th century Tudor England under King Henry VIII, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, an historic crime novel, affords us a look into a time of religious upheaval and superstition. Henry, who needed a male heir, had to be rid of Anne Boleyn, his second wife, and so declared himself head of the Church of England, breaking with the Pope and causing religious strife and turmoil as well as the sanctified murders of Queen Anne, her so-called lovers, and anyone else who refused to sign the oath of religious reform.

Loyalty to the King, head of the new Protestant church, is everything, and those who go against him suffer horribly. In order to enrich himself and his nobles, he has ordered the dissolution and takeover of the wealthy monasteries with his ruthless and expedient vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, in charge. Cromwell sends Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer, and his assistant, Mark Poer, to the Scarnsea monastery, a hotbed of corruption and soft living, to find the murderer of his commissioner, Robert Singleton, who had been sent to get the Abbott to sign the dissolution papers.

Shardlake, a true believer in religious reform, thought Anne guilty and that the riches obtained from the fallen monasteries would be used to help the poor, alleviating their miserable lives through schools, public works, and jobs for the unemployed. He investigates but soon finds himself at the center of four murders. Almost all of the monks and the abbot have reason to kill the commissioner and the plot thickens with red herrings.

But this novel is no mere murder mystery; it reveals the impact of religious upheaval on all the social classes of Tudor England, the bleak lives suffered by the common people, the greed of its nobility, the absolute power of a ruthless monarch determined to get his own way, and most of all the character of Shardlake who abhors the corruption of the Catholic church and its religious leaders.

But as his investigation unfolds, Shardlake is shaken to the core when he learns from the monk that his revered leader, Thomas Cromwell, falsified the evidence against Queen Anne and sent her and her “lovers”, who were tortured into confession, to their deaths. He realizes that one must be loyal to the King or lose one’s life, twist religious beliefs or twist in the wind as you hang from the scaffold, burn in the fires, or lose your head to the executioner’s sword. Through his investigation where everyone has a motive and his debates with the members of the monastery as well as with his assistant, Mark, Shardlake learns that everything he believes is based on lies. His uncovering of the murderer is a great shock to him and also to us.

The novel is well written and thoroughly researched. The reader is easily immersed in the society of that day and age. Read this as a complex whodunit and read it for a glimpse into history, but mostly read it for the development of Shardlake’s character as he struggles with his deformed body, ambitions, faith, and his demons of doubt.

Dealing not only with the dissolution of the monasteries but also with the disillusionment of the characters, this complex, gripping tale is hard to put down. If you love this mixture of history and mystery and haven’t discovered Ellis Peter’s Brother Caedfal series and Umberto Ecco’s Name of the Rose, try them out for more life and death in the monasteries of old England. ~