In 1537, the Reformation has come to England. King Henry VIII is on his way through his wives (divorced, beheaded), and has assumed the headship of the English church. He and Cromwell have ordered the dissolution of England’s monasteries, with all their wealth and relics, but the forcible conquest of the monks led to rebellion in the north, and neither the king nor his right-hand man wants that again. They are seeking a quieter, voluntary surrender from the large monasteries this time: pressure through legal means, allowing the whole system to collapse under its own weight. Commissioners are sent to each abbey, probing for flaws. But from one — the monastery at Scarnsea — comes terrifying news: the commissioner, the King’s man, has been murdered.
C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution is a meaty murder mystery, set in Reformation England. Matthew Shardlake, a thoughtful but wholly-convinced reformer, is sent to Scarnsea to clear up the mystery of the commissioner’s murder and to complete the surrender of the monastery itself. With him goes his assistant, Mark Poer, whose naivete and resultant disgust at the politics he sees developing around him make a good foil to Shardlake’s more cynical eye. The characters are well-drawn and interesting, and the closed system of the monastery makes for the equivalent of the country house or the hospital of which authors like P.D. James are so fond.
I will say that I might know a little too much about this era to make it completely satisfying. Some of the historical details bothered me. There were little things: once, Shardlake went into the bursar’s office when all the monks were at worship, and “someone had left a candle burning,” so he had light to see. Yeah, right. Candles were incredibly expensive, not to mention the risk of fire. Never happen. Or when the abbot, Brother Fabian, says how good the monastery system has been to him: he was only a poor chandler’s son, and now he is abbot of a large and wealthy monastery. Well, that’s possible, I guess, but highly unlikely. A position like abbot would normally go to a nobleman’s son, someone wealthy. I know that’s nit-picky, but I can’t help it.
There were also bigger things, that troubled but did not spoil my enjoyment of this novel. Sansom peoples his book with what is frankly a highly diverse cast of characters for a monastery in Tudor England: a hunchback, a homosexual, a woman, a Moor. Catherine’s wonderful review at Juxtabook gives a very detailed (and somewhat spoilery) description of how Sansom’s modern viewpoint can’t quite stay out of the novel, and she’s quite right: not only does he show tolerance and acceptance where there would be none, he doles out punishment where it’s inconsistent to find any. I will say that Sansom’s transgressions here are not blatant enough to ruin the novel for me, but they did intrude a little on my reading.
In summary, the mystery was good, the writing was pretty good, and the history was fair-to-middlin’. I really thank Catherine for introducing me to this book — it’s been on my TBR list for ages. What I really want to do next is read Wolf Hall, just to see if Cromwell is truly as bad as Sansom paints him…