Sansom, C. J. Dissolution.

NY: Viking, 2003.

Writing a murder mystery in an historical setting and doing it well is twice as difficult as writing either a mystery or an historical novel alone. The author has not only to contrive a complicated but reasonable and logical plot with a sympathetic detective, he must also get all the surrounding details of society right.

The story this time takes place in England in 1537 and the title refers to the destruction — in a very physical sense — of the monastery system as masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General, on behalf of King Henry VIII. Matthew Shardlake is a middle-aged property lawyer of some experience who has known Cromwell since their early days and has done well by the acquaintance. He’s a Reformer, one of those who thinks the Catholic Church needs to be cleansed of idolatry, the Bible and the mass made available to all in English, and fraudulent relics thrown on the trash heap. (Even Luther didn’t go as far as the English.) All this idealist zeal, of course, fitted in well with the King’s political need to be rid of the authority of the Pope — at first, anyway. Cromwell had sent a Commissioner down to a monastery in Sussex to pressure the abbot to surrender to the needs of the State, but the man has been murdered by decapitation. Now Shardlake, likewise commissioned and given broad powers, must go and investigate and make an arrest, and do it quickly. Off he goes with his handsome young assistant, Mark, and pretty soon there are more deaths and various unsettling discoveries. Shardlake is an observant detective, though he’s also a bit of a prig and not always likeable by modern standards — though he’s a far more humane person than Cromwell, or the local justice of the peace, or the prior of the monastery, or most of the monks. He’s also a hunchback with a poor self-image, and when he begins to have romantic feelings for a servant girl at the monastery, he assumes she couldn’t possibly reciprocate. She sets him straight about his assumptions — but she’s already fallen for Mark anyway. The plot is well worked out and the characters of the five senior monks, one of whom almost certainly is the killer, are entirely convincing. Moreover, the many small social portraits of England in the early 16th century, from the local poorhouse to the workings of the monastery’s accounting department, cast the whole thing into three dimensions.

From what I know of the Tudor era, as a long-time student of history, Sansom paints a very accurate picture of life and religious politics, all of which were pretty grim. There is little doubt the residents of England’s monasteries had become fat and wealthy and that, in most cases, they had long since abandoned any good they might have done for the common people in earlier centuries. It’s also true that the Reformers were callous and brutal and small-minded, and that they simply exchanged being told what to believe by representatives of the Pope to being told what to believe by representatives of the King. These same Reformers would shortly be hanging Quakers for heresy, remember. (And we should never forget the utter brutality of the all-Christian Thirty Years War, which would come along a couple generations later.) All of which only demonstrates, yet again, that Christianity since its very founding has never been a force for anything but repression and elitist power, working hand-in-glove with temporal authority and making itself obscenely wealthy in the process, and a pox on all their denominational houses.

Nevertheless, Sansom has produced a very involving story. And I happen to know what’s going to happen to the grasping Cromwell in the near future, so Master Shardlake’s situation is likely to change dramatically. I will be making room on my shelves for the next several books in this series.


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