Dissolution is the first book in C.J. Sansom‘s Shardlake Series. Set in Tudor England, the series stars Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer who, through commissions from his master Thomas Cromwell, ends up doing more crime/mystery-solving jobs than legal work.
Anne Boleyn has just been executed for infidelity and Queen Jane Seymour has just died of childbirth. The rift between the papists and reformers has grown dangerously large since Thomas Cromwell started his dissolution campaign against papist monks by seizing their monasteries all over the country and granting their lands to favored lords of Henry VIII. Cromwell now has his eyes on a wealthy Benedictine Monastery at Scarnsea and sent one of his men, Commissioner Robin Singleton, to get Abbot Fabian to surrender the property to the King. Unfortunately, while at Scarnsea, Commissioner Singleton meets a gruesome fate: his head is cut off by an unknown assailant who also desecrates the church and steals a holy relic, namely, the Hand of the Penitent Thief.
At the bidding of Cromwell, Matthew Shardlake travels to Scarnsea with his ward and assistant Mark Poer to investigate the cruel murder of Commissioner Singleton. Most important, to stay in Cromwell’s good graces, Shardlake must get the monks to surrender their monastery.
Shardlake and Poer are faced with many difficulties upon reaching Scarnsea: bad weather, difficulties with the attitudes of the different monks toward him and Mark, and difficulties with solving the perplexing case. Shardlake, a reformer who was educated all his life by monks, must now put aside his personal prejudices against monastic teachings and the monks to discover the identity of the killer as well as his motives for killing Singleton.
Although C.J. Sansom loses no time in getting the ball rolling in Dissolution, after Shardlake and Poer arrive at Scarnsea, their investigation doesn’t reveal much, and nothing very interesting happens for a big part of the novel. The story starts to pick up toward the end as Shardlake puts the clues together. However, by then, the plot and identity of the killer have become quite predictable.
Similar to the first Shardlake novel I read, Revelation, Dissolution focuses strongly on religion and the loss of faith not only in a higher being but also in people, principles, and ideals long held to be just and true. As Shardlake solves the mystery of Scarnsea, he also discovers the truth about the nature of Thomas Cromwell and his role in the execution of Anne Boleyn.
Dissolution, with its murder in a monastery run by Benedictine monks, is slightly reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose but less wordy and intellectual. To be honest, I still have not finished The Name of the Rose, but if you like those kinds of stories without actually straining your brain too much, then Dissolution is the book for you! It’s got enough intrigue, mystery, and history to keep you reading til the end – the perfect book for any crime/historical fiction fan!
Dissolution (2003) – C.J. Sansom
Pan Books; 443 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 3/5