Author: C. J. Sansom
C. J. Sansom’s debut novel Dissolution is the reason I finally started this blog after having thought about doing so for ages. It is the first in a series featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who works for Lord Cromwell at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. To broadly summarise the premise of this instalment, Shardlake is sent to investigate the murder of Cromwell’s commissioner in a wealthy monastery in Sussex. He takes along his protégé Mark Poer for assistance and support.
Initially, I raced through Dissolution. The atmosphere is well-developed and I could feel the brooding tension at the monastery mounting as the story went on. Given that the author has a PhD in history, it’s not surprising that all the little details which go into creating and maintaining a setting were consistent and realistic. (Not being an expert on the Reformation period myself, I’ve no idea if they were accurate, but they were certainly realistic). Although Sansom managed to avoid giving pages and pages of irrelevant description, I had a clear picture in my head of the layout and structure of the monastery throughout the novel, particularly the infirmary. There are constantly little ‘tells’ that yes, this story really is set 500 years ago and yes, it really was like that. Characters, including sympathetic characters, express racist and sexist views (that would not have been considered racist or sexist at the time), and the depiction of the monastery toilets is colourful, to say the least. The narrative itself doesn’t reflect these views—the most interesting non-Shardlake character was an Moorish physician—but the ease with which they are expressed grounds the narrative in the time period.
In fact, given that this is more or less just pulp crime fiction wearing a codpiece, the amount of detail and thought that is put into the story is impressive. This doesn’t just manifest itself in the historical facts; several of the characters are well fleshed out, particularly Shardlake himself. Shardlake was given just enough backstory to explain his beliefs and motivations without it overwhelming the plot. Since it’s the first in a series, I presume he is gradually developed over the course of the novels. The monks, in keeping with their roles as suspects, are depicted as neither wholly good nor wholly bad—at no point does this novel deal with absolutes. The good characters aren’t perfect and the bad characters aren’t evil, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle anyway—a convincing portrayal of reality in fact.
This brings me to my third and final highlight—the distinction Sansom draws between the actions of the church and the character of God. I am a Christian—a Protestant—but I recognise that atrocities have been committed in and by all denominations throughout the centuries. Even though I am pleased the reform happened, because the idea that the church was selling salvation and monetising the grace of God sickens me, I do realise that reformation was accomplished using methods that do not at all reflect the heart of God, and for reasons that did not glorify Him. I expected, picking up a book about the dissolution, to read a lot of church-bashing. I got it—neither the Reformers nor the Catholics get off scot-free, and Sansom draws attention to some of the more inexcusable things that were done by both parties. Remarkably, he does this without condemning the church whole-scale or profaning the name of God*. Very much of the appalling stuff done during the reformation, in the name of the Lord, is directly contrary to His Word. That’s a vital distinction to be drawn—one which is rarely made explicit even in news media in the 21st century—and the fact that Sansom does it so clearly greatly increased my enjoyment of this book.
However, I can only give this book 3/5, because I have to admit it lost something in the closing chapters. The uneasy tension, which was so deliciously created at the start of the novel, doesn’t explode in a climactic fight scene or spill over the tops of the monastery into rioting the streets—nothing so dramatic. Although there is a crisis point, in which there is a great deal of action, I didn’t feel like the plot capitalised on all the excellent atmosphere. Moreover, I guessed who the murderer was on initial introduction, although I did second-guess myself several times afterwards. It was disappointing to realise that I was right—the whole climax and denouement seemed a let-down in comparison to the rising action. I can’t exactly put my finger on it—at least not without spoilers—but even though the loose ends were tied up, I was still left with an unsatisfactory feeling of ‘unfinished’ because of the way Sansom chose to end it. Additionally, the sole female character struck me as a stock stereotype of ‘feisty girl’, without any particular character qualities outside that trope. Weak, generic female characters are always a bit of a disappointment to me.
This was his first novel and I think it reads as a very good debut, far better than a lot of the whodunits I’ve read. If it had been third or fourth in a series, I’m not sure I would have bothered to buy the next one, but as it is, I’m looking forward to it. I always find it exciting to see how a writer’s style develops and matures throughout a series, and this book in particular shows a lot of promise.
*There is lots of 16th century-style blasphemy, to be sure—lots of ‘God’s wounds’ and ‘God’s death’—but it doesn’t feel bitter or critical, it feels like an accurate depiction of the time.