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Dissolution: A Novel of Tudor England    by C. J. Sansom order for
by C. J. Sansom
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

C. J. Sansom introduces Solicitor Matthew Shardlake in this historical debut mystery. Set in the 16th century during the reign of King Henry the VIII, it brings to life the feared Lord Thomas Cromwell, queens Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, and the English Reformation with its transformation from the Catholic church to the Church of England. Papists are denounced, and those unwilling to comply are jailed, tortured, and beheaded. Cromwell's tactics are ruthless and self-serving. With the dissolution of monasteries and nunneries, a wealth of lands, relics, and artifacts is eyed greedily by those in power, while beggars are left to starve on England's streets.

The story features Matthew Shardlake, whose calm, gentlemanly demeanor is in contrast to the corruption, greed and violence around him. Shardlake is engaged to investigate the murder of Royal commissioner Robin Singleton at the Monastery of St. Donatus the Ascendant. Through winter's inclement weather, Shardlake and his protegé Mark Poer travel to the Benedictine monastery in Scarnsea, Sussex. During their interrogation of residents, the investigators find more than one murder. They uncover the mysterious deaths of a young servant woman, a Brother, and a Novice, along with evidence of abuse, sexual misconduct, defrauding the Exchequer, and misappropriated funds. Shardlake is shocked to discover truths about Cromwell that undermine his own beliefs, threaten to cost him his faith, and even his life.

St. Donatus Monastery is surrounded by a twelve-foot sheer wall, which would be difficult to scale by outsiders. However, a crumbled wall is located at the rear of the property leading straight into the marsh. As Shardlake tours the confines, he spots a shimmer of gold in the marsh water. Could it be the hilt of the sword used to murder the commissioner? What other clues are concealed in the muddy water? And what are those lights shining across the marsh -- smugglers perchance? The beauty of the novel lies in the period's formal, majestic speech, enriched by Sansom's writing and narrated by Matthew Shardlake. The latter at times berates himself, 'You are such a nodle.' Ah! such elegance of speech.

Dissolution is a slow-paced, remarkably enjoyable, recommended read. Sansom paints a vivid picture of the corruption that plagued England during the reign of Henry VIII. I foresee (and look forward to) the unfolding of a popular mystery series featuring Solicitor Matthew Shardlake.

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