Thursday, March 19, 2009

DISSOLUTION by C.J. Sansom

This morning I finished reading Dissolution, and author C.J. Sansom is now high in my pantheon of mystery writers. You suspect a book is going to be good when it's blurbed by P.D. James and Colin Dexter--and this is only Sansom's debut novel.

The strongly characterized, intricately plotted, fast-paced story is set in 1537, the year England's Henry VIII moved against the larger monasteries. The king's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, sends hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate a murder at the Monastery of St. Donatus in the fictional Scarnsea. Shardlake's mission is not only to discover who killed the previous royal emissary, but also to unearth other unsavory goings-on that could justify closing the monastery.

He unearths plenty, and on both sides of the church-state conflict.

No doubt one reason I like this book is because its cynicism is general--Catholics and Reformers are equally corrupt. I like the flawed but decent protagonist who makes serious mistakes but retains his essential honesty. I like the author's knowledge of and attention to historical detail (he has a PhD in history and has practiced law). I like Sansom's skillful, unobtrusive writing style. Mostly, I enjoyed the story.

Fans of Candace Robb's Owen Archer or Margaret Frazer's Dame Frevisse (or Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael or Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma) are bound to enjoy Sansom's Matthew Shardlake, even if he lives in the decades that finished off the Middle Ages. The cast of characters still includes a king and councillors, an abbot, a prior, and dozens of monastics. The setting still features monasteries, serving girls, horses, and of course rumors of war between England and France.

Sansom's second book in this series, Dark Fire, won the 2005 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, and he has added two more titles to the series since then. According to a November 2007 article in The Guardian, the BBC plans a TV adaptation of Dissolution starring Kenneth Branagh.

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