Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Literature: Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution introduces us to Dr. Matthew Shardlake, a kyphotic lawyer in the service of King Henry VIII’s Vicar General Thomas Cromwell. The period is shortly after the beheading of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn and the King’s marriage to Jane Seymour. This was a period of religious revolution in England where Henry declared himself via The Act of Supremacy 1534 "the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England.” That same year the Treasons Act made it high treason punishable by death to refuse to acknowledge the King as such. Both circumstances loom large in the backdrop of Sansom’s intricate murder mystery. The book’s title is derived from the dissolution of England’s Catholic Monasteries, ordered by Henry through Cromwell. Henry was given the authority to do this by the Act of Supremacy, along with the First Suppression Act (1536, dissolving smaller monasteries) and the Second Suppression Act (1539, dissolving the remaining monasteries). In April 1536 the Augmentations Office was established to handle receipt and processing of goods confiscated from the dissolved monasteries.

A government official sent by Cromwell to investigate a large Benedictine Monastery in the fictional Scarnsea, Sussex is found beheaded in the monastery’s kitchen the same day that a rooster is found sacrificed on the Church’s alter and the Church’s relic, The Hand of the Penitent Thief, stolen. Vicar General Cromwell dispatches Commissioner Dr. Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Mark Poer to the monastery to investigate the dead official’s suspicious demise. While the two investigators are in residence at the monastery, several other murders occur, in addition to the attempted murder of Shardlake. As a plot subtext, Shardlake’s developing interpersonal relationship with Poer makes for compelling reading as does Sansom’s use of Shardlake’s deformity as a metaphor of the human condition in battle with the religious strive for spiritual perfection.

Sansom, a historian and lawyer, provides an almost tactile portrayal of Tudor England as the story’s physically-flawed protagonist investigates the few nuggets of information regarding the murder he is provided. Sansom’s physically descriptive passages of the cold winter in the South of England are dense enough to chill the reader. Samsom’s politically and religiously descriptions are historically informed and educational. The author facilely leads the reader into the morally ambivalent gray area that Shardlake finds himself, that is being in favor of Church reformation for a spiritual sake while his betters have more temporal (and financial) agendas in mind. Cromwell comes off as the greed-ridden monster he was while the monks are depicted as the flawed universe of characters that inhabited monasteries in the 16th Century.

In my review of Matilde Asensi’s The Last Cato I remark on the value of a minimal bit of research on the plot subject of historical fiction. In the case of the Last Cato, I suggested a reading knowledge of Dante’s Divine Comedy in general and the middle triptych Purgatorio in particular as well as biographical familiarity with Dante. For Dissolution I will suggest that the reader pursue the following Wikipedia subjects: St. Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Kink Henry VIII, Benedictine Monasticism, and the Canonical Hours. I suggest Wikipedia because it is an easy resource to consult and often leads the reader deeper into related subjects that further flesh out a given subject. I also suggest other resources be used if the reader feels so inclined. Dissolution is a brisk and interesting read that makes welcome Sansom’s next two mysteries in the series, Dark Fire and Sovereign

This review was first published in Blogcritics.org