‘Dissolution’ – Matthew Shardlake #1 by C. J. Sansom

I’ve come rather late to this popular series. The book is now nineteen-years-old and the series is seven books strong. Worse than that, this book has been on my shelves for NINE YEARS (that’s the curse of keeping a book database, you know stuff like this and can’t hide behind I’ve had this for a while.)

Anyway, my wife and I finally listened to ‘Dissolution’ on a long drive and now I have to buy the other six books.

So, what’s good about it?

Firstly, Sansom is completely comfortable with both the day-to-day life and the power politics of the Tudor period and he doesn’t sugar-coat either. This isn’t a nostalgia trip to jolly Olde England, it’s a journey through a time of immense social turmoil when many of our current aristocracy and landed gentry established their wealth through the ruthless pursuit of land being taken from the monasteries by the King. Sansom makes it easy to visualise London as the pit it was in 1537. He mercilessly displays the thuggery and corruption of Thomas Cromwell and his Commissioners. He also shows how the monasteries had decayed into places that benefitted only the monks who live in them and who lived dissolute lives of indulgence that were far from the Rules of the Orders they were in.

Secondly, Matthew Shardlake, Sansom’s main character is unusual and credible. He’s a man whose hunched back has made him an outsider and a target for derision, even keeping him from following his vocation into the priesthood, but who has still managed to become a wealthy man, working as a lawyer in London, largely doing the bidding of Thomas Cromwell. Shardlake is a Reformer who genuinely believes that he is playing a part in reshaping England and the Church for the benefit of all and who is only now starting to think about the ruthless brutality that the Reformers have brought to their task. His political naïvety aside, Shardlake is a thinking man, with good instincts about people and a total commitment to enforcing the law. And he’s about to have his worldview challenged.

Finally, there’s the mystery. It’s a good one. One of Cromwell’s Commissioners, on a mission to force the Abbot of ancient Scarsea Monastery to agree to dissolve the monastery and transfer the lands to the King, has been decapitated in the monastery and the altar has been desecrated by the sacrifice of a black cockerel. Cromwell gives Shardlake a commission to keep the murder quiet, find the murderer and get the abbot’s agreement to dissolution as quickly and quietly as possible. What follows is a twisty plot with more than one death, lots of suspects and a surprising amount of physical conflict.

It was a very entertaining read. I can see why this series is so popular and I will now join the ranks of the faithful following Shardlake’s career through King Henry’s bloody reign (the man had 57,000 people executed, including almost anyone who was ever a trusted advisor) and beyond.

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