Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book review: Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

I like British mysteries and I like historical literature, so when I found Dissolution by C.J. Sansom recommended on NPR.org, I figured I'd hit the jackpot.

Set in Tudor England, hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is a member of the Reformer movement, led by Thomas Cromwell, as King Henry VIII seeks dismantle the Catholic Church's hold on England.  Cromwell is leading the charge to dissolve the kingdom's monasteries.  Unsurprisingly, there are those who do not take kindly to the King's men trying to take away their religion, and one of Cromwell's commissioners is murdered while negotiating the closure of the monastery at Scarnsea.  Shardlake and his handsome and hale protege, Mark Poer, are sent to Scarnsea to investigate the murder.  Once there, however, they find two more murders to solve amid a morass of sexual assault, homosexual behavior, theft, embezzlement and - most troubling to a loyal Reformer - treason.

Shardlake is quite intelligent and is loyal to Cromwell and the King, but he struggles to know whom to trust.  The monastery's infirmarian, Brother Guy, is a gentle, educated Moor who offers a new way of looking at things to the lawyer.  The abbot is of weak character, preferring to hunt the countryside with local landowners.  Brother Mortimus, the prior, runs the day-to-day operations of the monastery and is a harsh-minded brute.  Brother Edwig, the bursar, has an extremely tight fist with the monastery's money and his parsimonious ways frustrate Brother Gabriel, the librarian and cantor.  Everyone Shardlake interviews is hiding something and in 1537, there was not much in the way of forensic science to help point the way.

Dissolution is a solid enough book, but nothing brilliant.  I was able to guess who murdered Cromwell's commissioner, despite the red herrings sprinkled throughout the chapters - and I almost never guess whodunit.  Shardlake is a tough protagonist to identify with: because of his physical deformity, he keeps at a remove from the other characters, and yet Sansom doesn't do much to make the reader feel sympathetic towards him.  I did find it interesting to read a bit about the resistance to Reformation; so much seems to be written (or on cable) telling the stories from Henry's and Cromwell's side, it was nice to get another point of view.  I understand that there are a series of Shardlake mysteries but I don't think I'll indulge in another one right away.

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