Dissolution takes place during the period when Catholic monasteries in Henry VIII’s England were closed and often destroyed down to the last brick under the cruel supervision of Thomas Cromwell. The particular monastery of the novel comes under scrutiny because of a shocking murder. One of Cromwell’s commissioners who has been investigating the finances of the monastery at Scarnsea is found early in the morning in the kitchen with his head neatly severed.
Smaller monasteries have been taken over, but the larger monasteries still stand. Cromwell doesn’t want attention drawn to this larger monastery where the abbot was under pressure to “surrender” the monastery and all its lands and worth to the king.
Cromwell sends lawyer Matthew Shardlake, a dedicated Reformist, to solve the murder as quickly and quietly as possible. Accompanying Matthew is his ward Mark, an idealistic young man who has a way with women, and not so much respect for the Reformation.
They arrive at the monastery on horseback, just ahead of a snowstorm that soon isolates them in the monastery with a group of monks who find them to be frightening. It seems there are about five monks with access to the crime scene who also would physically be able to wield a sword and cut off a man’s head.
It turns out there are lights in the swamp at night behind the monastery’s crumbling wall, secret passages known to more than a few and two other murders that come to light as they investigate.
Matthew is a hunchback, but he does so much horseback riding, and physically challenging chases through the monastery, he lets nothing stop him. He’s so aware of his appearance, and has suffered a lifetime of ill looks and insults. Yet his intellect, hard work and reform fervor have made him a close confidant of Thomas Cromwell, and he has Cromwell’s power to wield as he goes everywhere in the monastery, examining everything, asking bold questions with no fear that he will not be answered.
It was fascinating to see how the religious beliefs and practices of the monks looked to someone who turned away from the church and had nothing but contempt for it. Matthew screamed at someone for worshiping “a piece of wood”. He’s certainly not a man of even temperament, as he yells at his assistant often also.
If it weren’t for his self awareness, basic humanity, and desire to do the right thing, he might almost be unlikeable. But I do want to read more of his stories set in the awful times he lived in. It will be interesting to see how he treads carefully though the upcoming years.
C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake Page: http://www.cjsansom.com/Shardlake
The Matthew Shardlake Series In Order:
Dark Fire 2004