By Chet Yarbrough
By C.J. Sansom
Narrated by Steven Crossley
“Dissolution” is a good murder mystery.
This is the first of a series of historical novels about a physically impaired Royal Commissioner/attorney that investigates crimes in the time of Henry the VIII. The listener is introduced to Matthew Shardlake.
Shardlake is commissioned by Oliver Cromwell to investigate the murder of a fellow Commissioner. Sansom creates the feel and smell of early 16th century life in a Sussex monastery, 50 miles from London. More interestingly, he reveals a version of Oliver Cromwell and the great upheaval of Roman Catholics at the time of Anne Boleyn’s beheading and King Henry the VIII’s rapacious hunger for Papist wealth. Sansom writes about social change in the 1530s. He reveals how that change muddies truth and justice, and exposes good and evil.
“Dissolution” is about Oliver Cromwell’s execution of King Henry’s orders to dissolve the Roman Catholic archdiocese and replace them with an Anglican Catholic hierarchy, responsible to the King of England rather than to the Pope of Rome. Henry the VIII’s purported goal is to reform the Catholic region in England but the underlying objective is to confiscate Roman Catholic assets to increase the Royal treasury.
King Henry capitalizes on the general population’s disgust with wealth and corruption in the local Archdiocese. The King commands Cromwell to send investigators (Royal Commissioners) to surrounding monasteries to search for legal means to dissolve their existence. One of these investigators is murdered; i.e. his head is lopped off in a monastery’ kitchen. Possible motives for the murder are fear of monastery dissolution, religious difference, sexual exploitation, and/or financial greed.
Leadership of the monastery suggests the perpetrator came from outside but evidence mounts to suggest that the likely villain or villains are within the monastery rather than without. That is the context in which C.J. Sansom places Commissioner Shardlake.
Shardlake’s character is more 21st century than 16th. Though he believes in God, he suspects religion as a dissembler of truth; i.e. he believes in the word of God but sees that God’s word is distorted by man. Shardlake, believes in the King’s plan to reform the church but becomes aware of Cromwell’s lies and deceit and begins to question Royal motive.
Shardlake shows himself to be a humanist that abhors physical punishment and abjures unfair treatment of women. His hunchbacked description and reported relationship with Oliver Cromwell reminds one of a conflicted human choosing to overcome adversity by educating himself, rationalizing human frailty, and believing that ends sometimes justify means. In the course of Shardlake’s investigation, the truths of his internal conflicts are revealed as he solves the murder.
What makes Sansom’s book more than a murder mystery is historical integrity and its larger human context. The story reveals the Machiavellian reasons for dissolution of the Roman Catholic Church in England. The Roman Catholic Church was not then, nor is it now, entirely good or entirely evil. As in all social change, dissolution of any human system of government, any kind of organization, throws both good and evil into the street; what remains is still a balance of good and evil but in a different human organizational form. Only the future and history reveal whether social change is better or worse. Evil does not disappear because it is a part of human nature, regardless of social change.
Listeners may be satisfied with “Dissolution” as a mystery, historical novel, or social commentary.