C. J. Sansom — Dissolution

Three weaknesses in one: English history, mystery novels, and the law. It seemed as though C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels were tailor-made for me, featuring the adventures of the titular character, a hunchbacked lawyer in the employ of Thomas Cromwell.

The first book of the series, Dissolution, is set during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries from 1536-1540. Shardlake is sent to the monastery at Scarnsea after the commissioner sent to attempt to convince the Abbott to surrender the grounds is murdered most brutally. Once arrived, Shardlake and his assistant, Mark, are plunged into a treacherous atmosphere where the murders continue and anyone in the closed community could be the killer. And Shardlake might be next.

Sansom is another lawyer turned author and of course I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for those guys. I thought generally it was quite a good debut; the historical research was done well and thoroughly, and he certainly had an eye for the small details that make period pieces believable. The mystery, too, was a twisty one, and I’m always pleased when I can’t figure out the killer but after the “reveal,” remember hints that if I’d been paying attention would’ve allowed me to get it. It’s not out of left field but it’s still a satisfying surprise.

It’s obviously a first novel and while the prose was mostly decent there was an obsession with detailing the weather on almost every chapter (sometimes multiple times per chapter) that was a bit of an amusing writing “tic”; similarly, some of the dialogue came across as stilted and somewhat unbelievable. That’s always a fine line to walk with medieval characters, you don’t want to make them sound so ridiculous as to be unbelievable, but using words and phrasing too modern and casual can throw you out of the story. It mostly worked, though there were a few instances where I rolled my eyes just a teeny bit (there were also a few redundancies and awkward descriptions).

What I enjoyed the most about Dissolution (besides the history!) was Shardlake himself. He’s a really interesting hero: flawed both physically and emotionally; introspective but blind to his own faults, and a clever and engaging narrator with a dry sense of humor that the reader can follow alongside. And just as the mystery concluded, Shardlake’s emotional epiphany at the end of the book was equally satisfying.

So while it wasn’t a perfect read I quite enjoyed it, and I’m happy I took out Dark Fire, the next book in the series, at the same time–so I won’t have to wait.

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