This afternoon at our book club we read ‘Dissolution’ by C. J. Sansome. it is set in the reign of Henry VIII at that very troubled time when as the title suggests, the monasteries were being dissolved and their wealth was taken over by the king. This was not just a rampage through the centuries old buildings and churches, but a methodical and documented dismantling of a system. Anything of value was carefully disposed of, and then buildings often torn down to wipe out the memories of what was seen as a corrupt, sinful and sacrilegious organisation. One of the King’s commissioners is sent to a particular monastery on the Sussex coast and before he has barely begun his task of assessing the place and its wealth, he is murdered in a most brutal fashion. A lawyer and member of the department of Augmentation, Matthew Shardlake is sent to investigate and continue the murdered man’s work. This scenario is set in deepest winter and no sooner has Shardlake and his assistant arrived than the snow comes down and they are virtually cut off.

I have read the book before, and the subsequent volumes in the series (Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation, Heartstone, Lamentation) and thoroughly enjoyed them. I am not usually a reader of historical novels, but I found these utterly gripping and really enjoyed them; they are the sort of book which keeps you up late into the night reading just one more chapter… I was pleased to reread the book, and enjoyed it all over again and had forgotten the solution to the mystery.

we had an enjoyable meeting; two people didn’t like the book at all, one couldn’t finish it, but the rest of us all enjoyed it – and here was only one other person who had read it before. Having different opinions was great, and there were different reasons for liking or disliking the book. One of the people who hadn’t enjoyed it, didn’t like crime novels which this is despite being set in the sixteenth century; however by the end she admitted that it had been an interesting read, she had read it to the end wanting to know what had happened, and had been intrigued by the mystery. We all agreed that it gave an insight into monastic life at the time, and the events of the period. It surprised a few of us how meticulously the dissolution had taken place, and how awful life must have been for the poor. For everyone, rich or poor life was much more precarious. We liked the way the main characters didn’t reflect opinions of our time, Shardlake was a sixteenth century lawyer, not a twenty-first century investigator.

Reading it for the second time, I did have some different thoughts; I did feel the ending went on for too long – there is an exciting climax when all is revealed, and then another unexpected event too. However after that, the explanations and conclusion, in my opinion went on for too long. it did remind me of ‘The Name of the Rose’  by Umberto Eco in that it was set in a monastery, a murder had been committed, an investigation by an outsider and his assistant took place, there were subsequent murders, and there was insight into religious life in a bygone age. This wasn’t a copy, and it is very different, but the winter’s setting made me think of Eco’s book.

If you haven’t read any of the books, I really recommend them; although they are stand alone, I think it makes sense to read them in order, as there are underlying narrative threads:

http://www.cjsansom.com/Shardlake

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