Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

Image result for dissolution sansom

This is the first book in the famous Shardlake series, and a worthy beginning to a set of books that have disturbed and created interest in this period. The reign of Henry VIII has been endlessly filmed, written about from the angle of each queen, examined for its change of church and state. It is the Shardlake series that has come closest to revealing what it was like on the fringes of power, and the fear of breaking the laws or rules that must have seemed to change everyday, at least until Mantel’s Wolf Hall with its examination of Cromwell’s life and times.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer, used to the face to face battle of the London law courts, sometimes employed by Cromwell to sort out a particular difficulty in enforcing the changes in church and state he was determined to push through despite the hardship they may cause to local areas. Shardlake is human. That is where the strength of the book lies for me; in all his discomfort, attraction to women he meets, fear of failure, he is a real person. In this book, his mission to sort out what has been happening in a small monastery on the coast, specifically the death of one of Cromwell’s commissioners, is anything but straightforward. Although Shardlake is an instinctive supporter of the religious reforms which mean that every religious practice is being questioned, he becomes disturbed by what they mean in practice. The murder which brings Shardlake and his employee Mark though the snow and winter is gory and not easy to solve, especially given the fear and unwillingness to cooperate shown by the monks and inhabitants of the monastery and nearby village.

This is a closed community murder mystery which includes all the twists and turns and questionable characters that any reader could wish for in a well written crime novel. The characters who have so much to conceal are contradictory, dangerous and very well drawn. The weather, marshes and unstable buildings all add to an atmosphere of menace. This is the sort of book that can lead to unsettling dreams, as no where and no one is as it seems.

I knew a fair bit about this historical period, but I think that it would be very approachable by the general reader as Cromwell and Shardlake’s actions are explained, even when royal connections emerge. Shardlake emerges a very real person, sensitive to comments about his appearance, aware of his shortcomings but also his abilities. He has a past, a sad history of attraction to a woman who he lost, and his concern for Alice is genuine. Alice and the very few other female characters are strong and act under their own initiative, but law, custom and expectation are against them.

I would recommend this book as a fascinating and immersive read, even for those who are not historians or crime fans. The characters and setting really live, and this book is a great start to the Shardlake series which can become addictive!

I picked up this book again after reading it several years ago, and enjoyed it enormously, if enjoy is the right word. I am trying to come up with a talk on the Reformation and Fiction for June. I have reread this book and am half way through Wolf Hall (again). I must admit that finding books which deal with this period is not easy; there are so many books about the Tudors but not so many novels about what happened to people when the monasteries closed and churches changed. Any ideas?

Heartstone and book groups and a bit of a gap…

Yes, I know that I haven’t posted a blog for a while. This is not the beginning of the end…just that I went to London for a big service at St. Paul’s. And got stuck when no trains went further North than York. Still, respect to the train company – they sent me to a hotel, so not all was lost.

It did mean that I had more reading time, though. So I have nearly finished South Riding

(Cue photo of David Morrissey) among other books.

Another book that I’ve finished is Heartstone by C.J. Sansom.

Following his other four books in the Shardlake series, this novel deals with the lawyer’s legal activities during the last part of Henry VIII’s reign. He has been asked to investigate a tricky case of Wardship, where two children’s guardianship has led to two deaths. Shardlake also involves himself in the problems of a woman imprisoned in London’s notorious Bedlam. The collected effect of all this sleuthing is extreme danger from more than one source and at least one “how will he get out of that” moment. The subtitle of this book is “Shardlake Goes to War”, and the setting in a Portsmouth where an army is being moved against a threat of naval invasion by the French is very intensely drawn. The fighting force is seen as a group of individuals rather than a faceless group of men, and the characterisation of many minor characters is detailed and often moving.

Without giving away too much of a plot, this is a very detailed and absorbing book. The characters are fascinating and varied, the clues to the mysteries are present, so the novel does follow the murder writers’ rules. It is a book to be taken in large chunks, rather than individual chapters. That is not to say that it so confusing that the plot is lost between times, but that  it is so involving that it is a shame to take so long reading it that its impact is diluted. I really enjoyed this book; it is a treat to read a series that has spawned so many imitations. It is also generous with and to its female characters; queens and Princesses are drawn on in an insightful way.  I still haven’t managed Sansom’s Winter in Madrid but will try and find my copy now.

I actually went to the book group that was looking at Birds of a Feather which I re read recently. Overall I think the reaction was positive; my brief skim of the reviews showed that it was aimed at the American market which did explain some of the  descriptions of the English way of life in the 1930s. One person did point out that some of the journeys between Kent and London are too short. We also discussed one or two of the crucial plot points, the historical settings and the dependence on psychic detection. I think that nearly everyone was keen to read more in Windspear’s series of Masie Dobbs detective novels.  It was a good discussion; while everyone enjoyed reading the book it was not one of those groups where everyone just agreed to like it. And it was revealed which was the most popular book that we looked at last year: Enigma by Robert Harris. A coffee meeting is planned to discuss our best books soon; watch this space…