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by C. J. Sansom
Penguin, April 2004
400 pages
ISBN: 0142004308

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's 1537 and Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's right-hand man, has got the monasteries in his sights. So when a murder occurs at Scarnsea, on the south coast of England, he sends fellow reformer Matthew Shardlake to investigate.

Shardlake is an unconventional hero a hunchback with a sharp tongue and a strong belief in what he is doing, but, beneath that, an almost a lack of worldliness. He takes with him his young assistant Mark Poer to help find out who murdered Robin Singleton, a lawyer sent by Cromwell to Scarnsea to gather evidence to undermine the monastery.

Scarnsea, tucked away in a silted-up Channel port, turns out to be a den of vice and iniquity, with all manner of sexual goings-ons, dodgy financial machinations and treason. And before long, two other murders occur.

In many ways DISSOLUTION is your classic crime novel, with a closed-in community, all of whom seem to have had opportunity or motive to polish off the victims. Author Sansom's cameos among the monks include the abbot with a taste for the highlife, the thuggish prior, the black infirmarian and the penny-pinching bursar.

DISSOLUTION is top-class writing at its most visual; it has the starkness of a medieval painting, peopled by characters you could imagine in a Bosch or Bruegel painting. Imagine Umberto Eco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE transported to a snowed-in monastery in wintery England, surrounded by marshes and smugglers. The book, too, provides a snapshot of a turbulent and bloody period in British history where the old Catholic faith was being shunted aside by Protestantism.

Sansom's book was deservedly short-listed for several awards, and is an outstanding debut novel. His writing is intelligent and immaculate -- tight, precise and vivid, and oozing menace. He only puts a foot wrong towards the end in an ending with the faintest of echoes of Hollywood cheese!

I don't usually read historical crime fiction, but I will happily make an exception for anything else Sansom might write. This isn't a book to be hurried; it's one to be savoured.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, June 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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