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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dissolution by C. J. Sansom

Penguin Books, 416 pp., $16 (c2003)

The trouble with historical fiction is …

I don't read much in this genre because even the best sometime devolve into history lectures. (In my opinion, Ellis Peters was one of the few writers who excelled at quietly educating while entertaining with a good story.) So my forays into time have been many, but few books survive to be read to the end. The exception is if a book has humor. I will tolerate anachronisms, modern sentiments inappropriately pasted onto a time past, overuse of colloquialisms, and unnecessary deep background recitations because an author wants to include ALL the research he or she did for the book if a book has humor (slapstick, dark, or lightly dusted)  or wit (dry or nit-). At least I'll tolerate it to a certain extent. I do draw a line.

I enjoy Arianna Franklin (lightly dusted lecturing, great pacing and sense of place), Charles Finch (quiet embodiment of the times with a good sense of the language), Deanna Raybourn (breaks a few of my no-nos but has humor, charming main character), Caroline Roe (history as real life not a school lesson, too few books under this pseudonym) and Lindsey Davis (Sam Spade meets ancient Rome -- what's not to love), to name a few of the few.

C. J. Sansom effortlessly brings forth a sense of the time. It is 1537 England. Henry VIII is king. The monastic world is being torn asunder. Henry has forced England to break from the Catholic Church because it would not grant permission for him to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn or to forsake Boleyn for Jane Seymour. Reformers, tired of the moral and material excesses of the Catholic Church, back the king in the dissolution of the monasteries.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who works as a commissioner for the vicar general of England, Thomas Cromwell. He is charged in this case with solving the murder of another commissioner at a large monastery in Scarnsea on the south coast. Then Shardlake is to get the abbott there to voluntarily sign an agreement to dissolve the monastery.

How clever to pick Dissolution for the title of the book! The sins of the residents of the monasteries have been collected by Cromwell as part of his campaign to break down the enclaves. The dissolution of the faithful will lead to the dissolution of their home.

Scarnsea has its dissolutes and its righteous. The problem for Shardlake and his assistant, Mark Poer, is to figure out who is which. What did the dead commissioner uncover that sealed his fate? After a young novitiate becomes the second victim, Shardlake begins to fear for his own safety.

Shardlake is a complex character. His vision is flawed. From the start, his evangelical point of view is tempered by what becomes obvious in historical hindsight: The Reformation is just another word for injustice; the common man's welfare is secondary to the political machinations of the king and gentry. But Shardlake believes in what he does. He believes in the corruption of the Catholic Church and its representatives. He believes that it is necessary to acquit his world of the idolatry and false religion that the monasteries represent. In good faith, he accepts his mission from Cromwell.

It's bad luck to touch a hunchback. It makes Shardlake's job harder when people withdraw from him in fear. Shardlake is a hunchback. He pities himself and envies those who are not malformed, especially his young assistant. He lets his emotions warp his judgment sometimes. He is lonely, clever, impassioned about the reformation, and a reluctant judge of the inhabitants of Scarnsea.

Sansom's knowledge of the times shows itself in the details and, for the most part, this doesn't interrupt his narrative flow. He rarely stutters to a stop because of a digression for a history lesson. 

The only trouble is how difficult it is to feel the necessary empathy for our narrator, Shardlake, whose "curt" remarks are often derived from self-pity and a short temper. It's not that I need only physically perfect, white-hatted heroes, it's that I don't like whiners, and Shardlake whines several times. It was necessary to make Shardlake so, however. Dissolution is also about Shardlake's growth as a person and how he meets the challenges to his beliefs.

Also, I loved the character of Brother Guy, the physician. He comes from a family of immigrant Moors, has been highly educated, and we are encouraged to immediately suspect him because of his foreignness. This was one "modern issue" that I enjoyed.

P. D. James has declared that C. J. Sansom is one of her favorite authors. Colin Dexter has favorably blurbed this book. I'm not about to argue with them. This book is an erudite, articulate winner.

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