C.J. Sansom creates an unlikely hero in his character Matthew Shardlake. In Dissolution, the time is Tudor England, and Shardlake is a lawyer working in the service of Thomas Cromwell. He’s just two degrees from King Henry VIII. But he’s still just a lowly guy charged with finding out why one of Cromwell’s other lawyers died recently. 

The death happened at an abbey outside London, so Shardlake finds himself among monks and their servants. Solving the mystery is complicated by a variety of cold, hard realities. For example, at this point in time the King and Cromwell are forcing the end of the Catholic Church in England. On one side are the Reformers, who know that following the King means staying alive. And hiding in the shadows are the Papists, who still support the Church but know they must keep their beliefs quiet. This all means that every monk has double reason to keep secrets.

Historically, this is also a time of violence and deceit. And Sansom plays the tensions of the story line with everything you’d suspect. Shardlake never quite knows who to trust. Between the snowy November cold and the unfamiliar locations, he is entirely a fish out of water. Add to that a physical disability that makes him vulnerable, and you’ve got a unique detective. 

My conclusions

For whatever reason, this audiobook sat on my virtual shelf for years. Now I want to dive into more work from Sansom. Thankfully, there’s plenty available. I also think many of the themes from Tudor England have interesting parallels with today. And that makes the series more intriguing as well.

First, the country was deeply divided over this religious and political issue. Second, everyone feared continued violence and some people encountered it regularly. Third, a plague of some kind was always around the corner and people distrusted the day’s shaky “medical science.” 

Thankfully though, we don’t live in stone buildings with only fireplaces for heat. Or ride horses while wrapped in cloth (fur if we’re lucky) to travel from place to place. And really, 21st-century medicine is an improvement.

I liked Shardlake and his logical deductive process. Yet, Sansom gives him vulnerability and emotion that rounds out the character. The balance between the two means he’s relatable, despite the centuries of time between us. The supporting characters were strongly defined, intriguing, and necessarily deceptive. No one is quite what they seem.

Sansom also draws on the story of Anne Boleyn and her truncated reign (and neck, for that matter). For me, this connected to the historical fiction of Philippa Gregory. The story plays on the sides of what I already know, and also adds layers and this new character. Which all make for good reading!

I recommend this book if you like historical fiction with a strong helping of mystery. Be warned, parts of it are gruesome. For book pairing, I recommend The Other Queen by Gregory because it dives more deeply into the political divides of the time.