Dissolution by C.J. Sansom


Before anyone gets too excited about parodies of Fifty Shades of Gray, the ‘dissolution’ of the title refers to King Henry VIII’s decision to dismantle the monasteries. Momentous, especially if you’re a member of a religious house, and even exciting, if you’re a historian of the Tudor period in England.

For those readers whose grasp of sixteenth century English history is a bit shaky: England in 1537 is undergoing religious upheavals the likes of which the country has not seen previously, as a result of its ruler’s quest for a wife who can produce the all too necessary male heir without too much in the way of political intrigue on her part in the process. Henry’s third wife has just died, leaving only a sickly little boy, and the king is seeking a replacement. The current (at the time Dissolution is set) upheavals are due, in part, to Henry’s split with the Catholic Church over his desire to separate from Katherine of Aragon but more immediately to Henry’s far more recent decision to dismantle the religious houses (monasteries, priories, convents and friaries) and claim these houses’ wealth for the Crown.

As Dissolution begins, the dissolution of the religious houses has begun, and residents therein have been scattered to the four winds. Surviving houses are in fear that they will be next, as they have little faith in Henry’s reassurances. A royal commissioner investigating Scarnsea, a fictional house in southern England, has been murdered, and Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief vicar and chief minister, wants the mystery solved and the murderer found. He sends Matthew Shardlake to find out what happened to the previous commissioner, and finish the investigation of the monastery. It’s not quite a locked room mystery, as the residents of the monastery have some freedom to come and go, but there’s a strictly limited number of possible suspects. In the course of the investigation, Shardlake has to face the underpinnings of his own faith in the Reformation and in Cromwell; as he discovers more about monastic life and the lives and motivations of the people there. In addition to the religious conflicts, Shardlake is a hunchback; he is not only in fairly constant physical pain, but must also face the disdain, fear, suspicion and derision of the more fortunate people he encounters in his travels.

What to read next? If the reader who finished this found it too simple, finding the anachronisms bothersome, I’d suggest possibly Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose for readers who like the “isolated monastery with murder on the loose” aspect or, as suggested in Goodreads, Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall for readers who liked the Tudor setting. I’d suggest, however, Edward Marston’s Domesday series, a non-religious series set in the late eleventh century, or Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mystery series, set in a Benedictine monastery in the early twelfth century; the time period of the two is different, but the series have a simpler and more straightforward writing style that readers in search of a light read might prefer. Dissolution, and its sequels, should be fine for people who aren’t fussy about the historical accuracy or detailed background of historical novels they read.

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