Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dissolution by C J Sansom

Review by Anita Davison
Having appointed himself Supreme Head of the Church, Henry VIII’s sycophantic ministers impose new laws, rig trials, and have set up a vast network of informers against anyone who voices regret at the loss of the old Catholic Church.
Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who has compassion for nature's outcasts due to the fact he is a hunchback and is therefore denied respect from his peers. Compassion was a scarce commodity in Tudor England, and as a Commissioner for Thomas Cromwell, who is systematically dismantling the English monasteries and seizing their wealth, Lawyer Shardlake's situation is precarious.

The fear and hatred Thomas Cromwell evokes is visited on Matthew when he is sent to a monastery on the south coast to investigate a murder, a beheading no less, of Robin Singleton, another of Cromwell's commissioners and the theft of the monastery’s precious relic.

Master Singleton was sent Kent to organise the ‘voluntary surrender of Scarnsea Monastery. The monks do not take kindly to the men they fear are only there to uncover illegal practices among their community and destroy the monastery altogether. Matthew and his assistant, Mark Poer, are treated with little warmth while they carry out their investigation during a bitter winter.

It's not long before Matthew starts questioning his own belief in Thomas Cromwell’s methods and the lengths the man will go to in order to remain in King Henry’s favour.

The situation is complicated when Mark is attracted to one of the suspects, and another death occurs, followed by the discovery of a long forgotten body in the fishpond. While Cromwell grows impatient and the monks close ranks, Matthew despairs of ever discovering the culprit, until a connection between a member of the monastery and the deceased finally emerges and Matthew might triumph at last. If he can stay alive.

Mr Sansom has a wonderful feel for the era and doesn't shirk from showing his readers the darker and less salubrious side of Tudor life and its complicated politics. In an age where one wrong word could condemn a man and one's thoughts are under scrutiny by all, his main character has to stay on the side of good as well as be diplomatic and succeed in the task set him to everyone's satisfaction, or not only is his career at risk, so is his life.

As historical crime novels go, this was an intriguing one and my attention caught to the end. Nor was my enjoyment spoilt by my guessing too son who the culprit was, and their motivation came as a very clever surprise.

Being a fan of the Tudor era and historical crime series, Michael Jenks and Cadfael among others, I picked this book up with some delicious anticipation and I wasn’t disappointed.

It's quite a long book, and despite the unconventional hero, I really enjoyed. C J Sansom has written three others based around Mathew Shardlake, Dark Fire, Sovereign and Revelation.

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