Oh my goodness why have I taken so long to read the Shardlake series by CJ Sansom? I was absolutely gripped by Dissolution, first in this Tudor series of mysteries featuring Matthew Shardlake, commissioner for Thomas Cromwell. And now I want to read all the others.
It is 1537. Henry VIII is king and supreme head of the Church of England. A year has passed since Anne Boleyn was beheaded and her successor as queen, Jane Seymour, has just died following childbirth. Cromwell’s team of investigators, or commissioners, are reviewing every monastery across the land. The dissolution of these institutions is expected as Catholic worship is reformed and anglicised. Lawyer Shardlake is sent by Cromwell to the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast where the investigating commissioner Robin Singleton has been murdered. Cromwell wants a quick solution to the murder so he can tell the king the problem and solution at the same time, and so puts pressure on Shardlake to find the murderer within days.
Shardlake is a great central character; a hunchback, as a boy he turned to his studies when sports and girls seemed impossible. ‘My disability had come upon me when I was three, I began to stoop forward and to the right, and no brace could correct it. By the age of five I was a true hunchback, as I have remained to this day.’ At Scarnsea, Shardlake needs all his bravery and perseverance to unravel Singleton’s murder. There is only one person he can trust, his servant Mark Poer. Everyone else is a suspect. Sansom twists a variety of motives to make every person at Scarnsea a potential murderer and as the story is told totally from Shardlake’s viewpoint, we must consider each piece of new evidence with him. Everyone at the monastery knows their way of life is threatened and some monks fear the changes. But there have been sexual misdeeds in the past, drinking, gambling and, Shardlake comes to suspect, financial fraud too.
When the snow falls, Scarnsea is cut off from the outside world. Shardlake’s investigation is systematic, interviewing monks, examining correspondence, visiting the crime scene, checking financial records, considering potential scenarios. There is a creepiness about the monastery which made me shiver as Shardlake shivered, and not not just from the extreme cold. Threat is ever present, made gloomier by the adjacent marshes.
Dissolution is a terrific book. The historical setting and details are authentic; Shardlake is a compelling protagonist, caught as he is between light and shade, between what he wants to do and what he knows he should do; and the murderer is not obvious.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
DISSOLUTION by CJ Sansom #Tudor #detective https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3zp via @SandraDanby