Even though I read a lot of history, I've never been a fan of historical fiction and so when one of the book clubs to which I belong picked this novel as a monthly read, I approached it with some trepidation. For the most part, though, I was pleasantly surprised and I enjoyed the book more than I expected to.
Dissolution is set in England and the action takes place over a couple of extremely cold and snowy weeks in 1537. This is shortly after King Henry VIII has broken with the Catholic church and created the Church of England, with himself as the head of the church. At this point, of course, religious freedom is only a dim, distant dream, and all English people are required by law to follow Henry into the new Anglican church, whether they like it or not.
Many of them don't like it. They remain true to the Catholic church and continue to give their religious allegiance to the Pope. Many of these people will be persecuted for their beliefs and not a few will be executed. In many respects, these are not the sunniest of times.
Once establishing himself as head of the English church, Henry conveniently grants himself a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he can marry Ann Boleyn. The Pope had refused to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine and this precipitated the break between Henry and the Pope.
Henry also moves expeditiously to confiscate property in England that had belonged to the Catholic church. Most important, there were many Catholic monasteries in England that controlled vast amounts of valuable land. Henry began the process of dissolving the monasteries (the Dissolution) and appropriating their wealth. His principal ally in this effort was his vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, who was much feared by Henry's opponents.
Cromwell sends a commissioner to begin the process of dissolving the monastery of Scarnsea on the southern coast of England, but shortly after arriving at Scarnsea the commissioner is murdered. Cromwell now sends one of his protégés, a lawyer named Matthew Shardlake to investigate the murder and to conclude the dissolution of the monastery.
Shardlake is a brilliant lawyer and is devoted to the reform of the church. He is also a hunchback who has always been self-conscious and socially ostracized to some extent because of his handicap. Shardlake is accompanied by a handsome young assistant named Mark Poer, and the two make their way through the snow to Scarnsea to find a tangled web of murder and intrigue along with financial and sexual irregularities. More murders will follow their arrival and it's clear that Shardlake and his young assistant are also in grave danger every moment that they remain in the monastery. The burning question is whether or not Matthew Shardlake can accomplish his mission before both he and Mark become victims themselves of the evil that seems to infuse Scarnsea.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the atmosphere that Sansom creates. He vividly recreates the turmoil of the period along with the sights, sounds and smells of the era. The reader feels the chill in his or her own bones as the characters struggle to stay warm in the middle of the freezing cold weather. This historical detail is engrossing and the story is a compelling one.
If I have a complaint about the book, it's that about halfway through the book, the story started to drag a bit. Shardlake spends an awful lot of time wandering through the snow from one part of the monastery to another in order to interview people and it starts to get a bit repetitious. I found myself encouraging Shadlake to pick up the pace a bit. This is a book that runs 385 pages which, in my estimation, would have been much better at about 325 pages. But that is a relatively small complaint, and this is a book that should appeal to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries. 3.5 stars for me, rounded up to four.