Book Reviewshistorical fiction

Review: Dissolution by C J Sansom

dissolutionDissolution plunges us into the turmoil of a sixteenth-century England whose citizens fear for their lives unless they adhere to the country’s newly proscribed form of faith. Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell is hell bent on ensuring Catholicism is eradicated; dissolving the monasteries, evicting its cloistered inhabitants and selling the land and assets to loyal supporters of his master King Henry VIII. Those who resist and speak out against the new order find themselves imprisoned in the Tower of London and tortured or executed.

The murder of a Royal Commissioner while on a mission to root out corruption at a monastery in Kent , threatens to disrupt all of Cromwell’s plans. He needs the perpetrator found quickly and secretly — and he knows just the man to do the job. His choice — Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of the Reformation. Shardlake and his young relative Mark Poer are despatched to the south coast to investigate the murder.

As in all good murder mystery stories, the investigators quickly learn almost everyone has a secret and a motive.  Hidden passages; false trails; multiple corpses; near death experiences; fights and escapes: all the standard components of the genre are in this book. What lifts Dissolution well above the usual fare is the  quality of Sansom’s writing with its strong sense of place and atmosphere and an intriguing, multi-dimensional protagonist.

Sansom perfectly evokes the desolation and isolation of the monastery’s setting on the edge of the Weald with its treacherous currents that only smugglers and a few inhabitants dare cross. The heavy snow which falls as Shardlake arrives at the monastery acts as a metaphoric cloak through which he must penetrate to find the killer.

But Shardlake uncovers more than the answer to the crime. What he discovers creates deep unease within himself about Cromwell’s motives and challenges his beliefs about the new future for his country once Reform is fully enacted.  By the time the book ends, his faith in humanity is damaged and his idealism has given way  to an acute awareness of the corruption all around him.

…. there is nowhere safe in the world now, nothing certain. …. The Bible says God made man in his image but I think we make and remake him in whatever happens to suit our shifting needs. I wonder if he knows or cares. All is dissolving.

Dissolution is the first in a series of books featuring Shardlake. I will definitely return for more of this intriguing character.

Want to know more?

C J Sansom practiced as a lawyer but gave up his practice to write full time. His first novel, Dissolution was published in 2003. There are four other titles in the Shardlake series plus A Winter in Madrid, a mystery set in post-Civil War Spain and most recently (2012) Dominion, a World War 2 thriller

His website can be found here 

The Guardian newspaper has an interesting article in which Sansom talks about his Shardlake series.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

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