10 May, 2012

Dissolution, by CJ Sansom. Book review

Pan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-330-45079-9. 443 pages.

Dissolution is a murder mystery set in London and the fictional monastery of Scarnsea on the south coast of England in 1537-1538, against the background of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell is an important secondary character, and historical figures including Anne Boleyn and her supposed lover Mark Smeaton are important in the background. All the main characters are fictional.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who occasionally undertakes commissions for Thomas Cromwell, the powerful and ruthless chief minister of Henry VIII. A keen reformer, Shardlake believes the monasteries are corrupt and supports Cromwell’s attempts to force the large monasteries into ‘voluntary’ surrender. When one of Cromwell’s commissioners, a brutal thug called Robin Singleton, is violently murdered while investigating the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, Cromwell sends Shardlake to investigate. Snowbound in the isolated monastery, Shardlake finds that nothing is what it seems, and the threads of murder extend far beyond the monastery to encompass some of the highest in the land.

Dissolution is both a clever murder mystery and a vivid portrayal of the upheavals of the English Reformation. Inevitably, a murder set in an enclosed monastery is going to evoke The Name of the Rose – and unless I am much mistaken there’s a sly Name of the Rose joke in the text – but Dissolution is much more of a classic whodunit. Clues and red herrings abound to keep the reader guessing, and the solution is not obvious in advance, or at least it was not to me.

As well as the mystery puzzle, the sequence of subsequent events combine to produce a steadily building sense of menace, echoed by Shardlake’s increasing disquiet about the worth of the cause he is serving. This for me was one of the best features of the novel, its strong period sense. The upheavals in English society resulting from Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his marital entanglements are more than just a dramatic background, they are intrinsic to solving the mystery. Furthermore, the intellectual and social background is more than just atmosphere. Conflicts arise between the reformers’ view of the Catholic church as corrupt and the role of the Church as an international institution, a custodian of knowledge, a provider of education, a route of social mobility for intelligent men from modest backgrounds, and a social institution providing a degree of help for the destitute. Class conflicts also play a part, as far-reaching changes in the social order resulting in part from the Reformation bring a new type of opportunist to the fore. The overall tone is dark, derived not just from the violent events inherent in a murder mystery but also from a pervasive sense of fear and insecurity. If Cromwell and the King are ruthless enough and powerful enough to bring down the monasteries, with hundreds of years of accumulated tradition and wealth behind them, what hope for anyone?

Shardlake is a fully realised character, a very human mix of good and bad, attractive and unattractive qualities. He is intelligent and humane, a rational thinker, a follower of Erasmus and a keen reformer, believing that religious reform will improve the human condition. Yet he also unquestioningly accepts the class distinctions of his time and defends the resulting injustices, he is quick to take offence at any real or imagined reference to his disability (Shardlake has a hunchback), and it seems his zeal for reforming the monasteries may owe something to unpleasant childhood experiences in a cathedral school as well as to Erasmus’ ideals. Nevertheless, Shardlake is driven mainly by a search for truth and justice, and his disillusion as he is forced to recognise that many ‘reformers’ are more concerned with ego, greed, vanity and abuse of power, is both convincing and poignant. The other characters are clearly portrayed as individuals, though none has the depth of Shardlake. I will be interested to see how (if?) Shardlake and his principles manage to navigate the rest of Henry VIII’s increasingly tyrannical reign as it unfolds.

The novel is narrated throughout in first person by Shardlake, in straightforward modern prose (with a refreshing absence of expletives). It has something of a lawyer’s measured tones, and the pace is best described as stately. The tale is more of an intellectual puzzle against a menacing background than an action-packed thriller, and indeed Shardlake’s disability rather limits his opportunity to play the action hero (though I have to admire the author’s nerve for the Quasimodo scene!).

A map at the front of the book explains the layout of the monastery at Scarnsea, and will be helpful for readers who like to work out how the buildings connect to each other and who could have got to where. The senior monks are also listed at the front of the book, which may help readers keep track of the names as they are introduced, although I found I did not need to refer to it. A short and helpful Historical Note at the back summarises some of the underlying history.

Intelligent, dark murder mystery set against the well-realised historical background of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.


Kathryn Warner said...

I really enjoy the Shardlake series. I think Dark Fire, the second, is my favourite.

Rick said...

Obviously not an English cozy! Even without reading the book it is easy to come up with an impressive list of possible suspects.

It strikes me that there's a bit of implicit pun with 'dissolution' and 'disillusion.' Perhaps not until the Cold War would there be so much bad conduct in the name of lofty ideals.

Rick said...

Enabling email notifications!

Carla said...

Kathryn - I was most impressed, and I'm looking out for the rest of the series. Hopefully I will get to Dark Fire soon.

Rick - that parallel struck me when I was reading, though I can't remember whether the author draws it explicitly. Several characters refer to 'dissolution' in the sense that their world is dissolving (which of course it is, for some of them). No, it isn't a 'cosy' mystery, although it isn't particularly grisly either as most of the gruesome details are left to the imagination.

Janice said...

Loved your review. I am on the third book, Sovereign, and I think Dissolution is the best in the series.

Carla said...

Janice - Hello and welcome! I haven't got to the other books yet, and am looking forward to them. It will be interesting to see how the series develops. I was certainly impressed with Dissolution.