I took a break from the science fiction and fantasy genres to read a historical mystery, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. My interest was piqued because of the specific time period it covered: Tudor England during the dismantling of the country’s monasteries after Henry VIII declared himself Head of the Church of England. I have always been fascinated by the tumultuous events of the Tudor dynasty: its attempts to be modern yet still concerned with the superstitious, the rise and fall of families during the years Henry VIII tried to beget an heir, the reversals from Catholic to reformed and back again, and the incredible personalities of each reigning monarch.
Dissolution is set just after the death of Jane Seymour in 1537. Thomas Cromwell, the vicar general, is tasked with breaking the large monastic communities in order to receive the lands for the crown (and to be distributed to the king’s favorites). Cromwell is forced to find a new way to get these lands — his earlier solution to merely seize them met with an armed rebellion. Now he seeks voluntary surrenders and is willing to encourage capitulation by exposing the corruption of the monks.
Matthew Shardlake, a London lawyer and ardent Reformer, is sent to the monastery at Scarnsea to investigate the brutal murder of Cromwell’s representative there. Shardlake and his protege, Mark, begin to uncover a tangled web of indiscretions and potentially explosive information which could bring down important men in the government. And then more bodies begin appearing….
I found the story very well written and Sansom provides a lot of period color on the lives of the common people and the monastic life, without a dense information dump that is common to period novels. It was also important to me that Shardlake not drive unerringly to the truth, but be misdirected and draw the wrong conclusion along the way.
Sansom certainly draws upon other whodunits like The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. In one conversation, the monastery’s librarian laments the rise of the printing press and the loss of handwritten and illustrated books. He then clearly references the key text in The Name of the Rose:
He took an old volume from the shelves and opened it, coughing amidst the dust it raised. Little painted creatures danced impishly among lines of Greek text.
‘Reputedly a copy of Aristotle’s lost work On Comedy,’ he said. ‘A fake, of course, thirteenth-century Italian, but beautiful nonetheless.’ (page 137)
(Oh, and one other silly thing that drew me to the book: I’ve always loved the word ‘dissolution’.)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished January 9th, 2011)
Currently reading: Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom & The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris