Dissolution by C. J. Samson ★★★★½
Series: Matthew Shardlake (1 of 5)
Edition: Vintage Canada (2012), Kindle eBook, 464 pages
Original publication date: 2003
When Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer at the employ of Thomas Cromwell is ordered to investigate a murder in a Benedictine monastery, he finds he is quickly enmeshed in a mystery that just keeps getting more complex, more tangled up and more dangerous day by day. Cromwell, known as a harsh master and a tough man to please, expects to get a quick resolution to avoid having to relate the incident to King Henry VIII, as the details of the crime are sure to greatly displease the monarch. The year is 1537 and England is in the midst of Reformation; the Catholic religion, which had been practiced in England for countless generations is now out of favour, ever since King Henry decided to divorce himself from the Roman Pope and declared himself the head of the Church of England, to enable him to rid himself of his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn in accordance with his pious beliefs. At this time, Anne has been gotten rid of well over a year ago—a beheading which Matthew was ordered to attend much against his will—and Henry’s third wife Jane Grey has just died in childbirth. King Henry’s men, all ardent Reformers, with Thomas Cromwell at the helm as vicar-general, and the newly formed Court of Augmentations (created expressly for the purpose), are busily closing down all the smaller monasteries to replenish the royal coffers and take over land which is to be given over to prominent landowners as royal favours. But Henry VIII and Cromwell’s sights are now set on the large monasteries, from which there are countless riches to be gained, and the monastery of Scarnsea on the Southern coast of England is their next target. The political situation is fragile however, and the king’s men are in no position to force the monks to abandon their holding as they’ve done with the smaller monasteries, since a revolt in the North has forced them to reconsider their strong-arm tactics, and they must employ finer stratagems now to encourage the abbots to give up the monasteries willingly.
The royal commissioner recently sent to investigate Scarnsea has just met with a most violent murder on the premises, and Master Shardlake is expected to find the culprit and conclude the business his predecessor was sent there to take care of. Of course, he fully expects to be met as an unwelcome guest at the monastery; as the vicar general’s man, he has unrestricted access and can question anyone he likes to enable him to find means to put all the monks and their servants, who have been living in the monastery in luxury and comfort for hundreds of years, out on the street. So he is all too aware that he and his assistant, the young Mark Poer, are putting their lives at risk in a place where a murderer has already dared to strike off the head of his predecessor, all the more so when other suspicious deaths take place and a long-dead corpse is discovered. Shardlake, as an ardent reformer, has his share of preconceived notions to contend with before he can see past his prejudices against the Catholic papist traditions of the monks and recognize when he is being told the truth and given clues he should attend to.
I’d seen many glowing reviews for this book and the Matthew Shardlake series in general, but am glad I followed my instincts and decided to put it off until I’d learned about the major players in King Henry’s time and understood more about the political and religious situation of that particular period covered in the book. Reading Hillary Mantel’s excellent Wolf Hall with the assistance of a tutor on Library Thing who is extremely knowledgeable about that period, followed-up with Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which treats specifically on Henry Tudor’s displeasure with Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell’s efforts to eliminate her so the monarch could move on to Wife Number Three, proved to be just the kind of high quality literary background that helped me appreciate this historical crime novel all the more. I also found reading this as an eBook very practical, as it made googling particulars and looking up biographical details on wikipedia available at the touch of a button, but that being said, I don’t think deep historical knowledge is necessary to enjoy this series, with its countless atmospheric details which plunge you right into the 1530s and a fast-paced, complex yet riveting plot that certainly kept this reader completely engrossed and barely able to put the book down. I’ve been told by fans of the series that the Matthew Shardlake books just keep getting better and have now moved on to book 2, Dark Fire, which is proving equally captivating. In fact, I think I’ll go and read a few more chapters now, and am already hoping Sansom puts out more sequels to keep me going for a good long while!