Dissolution by C. J. Sansom
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2008
About the author:
Christopher John (CJ) Sansom is an English writer of historical fiction, having gained a PhD in History from the University of Birmingham. Previously employed as a Solicitor in Sussex he now writes full time. His most recognised work being the “Shardlake” series set in Tudor England.
Matthew Shardlake: Lawyer and supporter of the reformation of the church. Sent to Scarnsea by Lord Cromwell.
Mark Poer: Assistant to Shardlake, out of favour with Cromwell due to a scandal.
Robin Singleton: Cromwells commissioner, found murdered at Scarnsea Monastery.
Senior Obedentiaries (Officials) of the Monastery of St Donatus the Ascendant at Scarnsea, Sussex, 1537:
Abbot Fabian: Abbot of the monastery, elected for life by the brethren.
Brother Edwig: Bursar. Responsible for all aspects of monastery finance.
Brother Gabriel: Sacrist and Precentor, responsible for the maintenance and decoration of the monastic church, and for its music.
Brother Guy: Infirmarian. Responsible for the monks’ health. Licensed to prescribe medicines.
Brother Hugh: Chamberlain. Responsible for household matters within the monastery.
Brother Jude: Pittancer. Responsible for payment of monastery bills, wages to monks and servants, and distribution of the charitable doles.
Brother Mortimus: Prior, second in command to Abbot Fabian; responsible for the discipline and welfare of the monks. Also the novice master.
Plot summary,spoiler free I promise:
The novel starts with our introduction to Matthew Shardlake and the beginning of the scene setting in Tudor England when the reform of the Church is in full swing. Right from the beginning we see that Shardlake has the capacity and love to feel sadness at the fate which has befallen monks, but equally his commitment to a cause he believes in.
We travel with Shardlake, through a vividly described Tudor England, to the offices of Lord Cromwell where we learn of the murder of Robin Singleton at Scarnsea, and the need for the murderer to be found quickly due to rising discontent. We slowly learn of the web of informers spread throughout England, on both a local and national level. We truly get the impression that everyone is being watched, and that no-one is really safe from suspicion.
At the monastery we see more of the unrest that the reform has caused, alongside a gruesome murder, desecration of an altar and the tangled web of lies, half truths and secrets that the monks keep. Alongside we see the depths of Faith and the wide spread of different views on how best to worship and show praise to God. We see religion, politics and experience first hand the effect of Anne Boleyn’s execution.
We follow Shardlake from the hustle and bustle of London to the fog wreathed monastery in the center of marshland as he attempts to untangle the web, at great risk to himself and his long held beliefs.
From the beginning I loved how the author brings Tudor England to life, it isn’t a period of history I hold much interest in, maybe because I was forced to study it far too much at school, yet I found myself well and truly feeling like I was part of the times. The civil unrest and the discontent at the religious changes were brilliantly highlighted, especially as in this day and age it is hard for a lot of us to understand what a large part of peoples lives the Church and Faith was. I truly felt the anxiety of the times, and the anger or self righteous pride depending on the characters views of the Reform.
As the novel progresses, historical facts about the reform, changes to worship, and life in a monastery are interwoven into the murder investigation and details of law in Tudor times. I mostly found this interesting but more than once found myself google searching for facts about the Reform, or to clarify if an act was deemed appropriate before or after the changes were introduced. That said I do know very little about this period of history, and even less about the changes to the Church so possibly I should have listened at school more.
The historical facts were fascinating, not just about the changes to the Church and worshipping of false idols, but also Tudor law, food, monastery construction and social expectations. I truly felt that the author was incredibly knowledgeable and also had a gift for teaching this through story without making it seem like learning at all.
I enjoyed the characters too, there was great variety of personalities, pasts and motivations shown. Through the murder investigations these characters were developed and revealed but with the author maintaining consistency and core attributes throughout, Shardlake for example who I felt was kind and compassionate from the start, a view that changed little as the story progressed. I did feel a little like the author had a checklist for attributes he wished the monks to have though, sodomy for this one, paedophilia for another, then this one can be a coward and this one ruled by greed, but with a lot to showcase and relatively few characters it made for an interesting read.
I did find the plot line itself to be slow and somewhat ponderous at times, I am used to modern crime thrillers with DNA, fingerprints and CCTV alongside a much faster pace of life. The speed of the story reflected well the difficulty of investigations in Tudor times, and the slow pace that inevitably comes with relying on visual clues and word of mouth. I found myself constantly checking how many pages were left because I wanted answers, not more historical facts or drama.
Overall I enjoyed this novel, a crime drama set during a time of great civil unrest made for a fascinating read and a brilliantly set scene. I was too impatient for answers to really enjoy the journey though and feel this novel is best for those who enjoy a slower pace.
Recommended for lovers of historical novels, crime investigation and anyone wanting to learn more about Tudor times.
“‘Men voyage nowadays to lands our fathers never dreamt of.’
‘And bring back wonders.’
I thought of the strange bird. ‘New wonders and maybe new deceits.’”