Here’s my very short (February 2007) review of Sansom’s first book in this Henrician* detective series, Dissolution:
Dissolution by C.J. Sansom A- Recommended by P.D. James. I really liked this one. I hope there will be more books about the detective Matthew Shardlake who works for Henry VIII’s Thomas Cromwell. Wait, I just checked Amazon, and there are sequels: one called Dark Fire and a new one called Sovereign.
Grumpy Old Bookman’s review of Dissolution.
I found the third book in the series, Sovereign, on the “new books” shelf at the library, and I checked it out, forgetting that there was a book between the new one and the one I read in February. It didn’t matter. Sovereign was an absorbing read, full of historical details and a plot that held my interest and kept me guessing until the very end of the book. Sansom’s detective, Matthew Shardlake is a hunchback lawyer with court connections who wants to live a peaceful, quiet life in the background of London’s courts and law offices. Instead, he is drafted by Archbishop Cranmer for a special assignment and sent to meet King Henry VIII as he and his court make a Great Progress through the north country of Yorkshire. Shardlake reluctantly accepts the job Cranmer gives him, as if he had much choice, and finds himself in more trouble than he could have imagined. Almost assassinated, accused of treason, witness to the betrayal of others, Shardlake must depend on his own wits and the faithfulness of old friends to save his life and his livelihood.
The most fascinating parts of the book dealt with the history of the Wars of the Roses, Richard III’s accession to the throne, and the usurpation of that same throne by the Tudors, all events that happened way before this story even begins. But the historical events cast a long shadow. In the book, Henry VIII, and Matthew Shardlake, are still dealing with the fallout of decisions that were made long before either man was born. Of course, the story reminded me of one of my favorite vindications of Richard III, Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. Sansom’s book is set in the England of Henry VIII, just after his marriage to his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Nevertheless, both books share an interest in the details of the Tudor succession to the English throne and the legalities thereof. I can only imagine the amount of research that went into the writng of Sovereign since the period details are so rich and plenteous and seemingly verisimilar.
Matthew is an interesting hero/detective, too. He’s crippled, in body of course, but also emotionally. He finds it difficult to trust because of the suffering he’s had to endure all his life at the hands of those who make fun of his physical disability. Yet, he’s a man of integrity who hasn’t allowed his affliction to make him bitter or violent. Instead, he has sympathy for those who are mistreated, and he finds ways to excuse and forgive even the most grievous sins against him. Yet, he is shocked and moved to anger by injustice. And many times in the novel Shardlake’s desire for justice conflicts with his inclination toward mercy.
*Isn’t “Henrician” a wonderful word? I know “Elizabethan” and “Edwardian”, but I’d never heard of “Henrician” until I read the historical notes in the back of Sansom’s book. Unless, you’re talking or writing about the life and times of Henry VIII, the word is of limited use; nevertheless, I like it.