DISSOLUTION is the first in the series featuring Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer and member of Thomas Cromwell’s inner circle. The term dissolution refers to the closing of the monasteries in Henry VIII’s increasingly Protestant England.
It is 1537. Henry VIII had declared himself head of the church in England when the pope had refused to grant an annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn. The pope refused to rule the marriage as invalid, a reasonable decision in that Henry had petitioned the pope successfully to have the betrothal of Catherine and his older brother, Arthur, declared invalid when he wanted to marry Catherine. Henry’s eye began to wander when, after many miscarriages and stillbirths, Catherine had given him only one heir and that was a daughter. Henry wanted sons and he wanted a younger wife. Henry wanted the pope to rule that he had made a mistake when he granted Catherine and Henry permission to marry in the church. When Henry broke away from the authority of the pope, he declared himself head of the “in” England; Henry believed in the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. Henry had been awarded the title Defender of the Faith in 1521 by the pope for writing In Defense of the Seven Sacraments, an argument against Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. He didn’t have a problem with the Catholic Church. He had a problem with the pope. Anne and Henry married in 1533 and Elizabeth was born three months later. A series of miscarriages followed and Henry wanted to marry Jane Seymour. A series of tainted witnesses proved proof that Anne had committed adultery and that she was a witch. Anne was beheaded in 1536. In the story, Matthew Shardlake is one of the formal witnesses of the execution, an experience that haunts him.
In 1537, Henry’s third wife, Jane of Seymour, has recently died after giving birth to a son. Jane and her supporters have been moving Henry away from the church of Rome and one of the very large carrots that have been dangled in front of Henry is the wealth and the lands of the various monasteries scattered throughout England. Thomas Cromwell promises the king that dissolving the monasteries and selling off the land to loyalists will give him the money he can’t get from Parliament. Commissioners are sent by Cromwell to discover reasons for closing monasteries based on anything that can be considered treasonous, anything that can be stretched to prove that the monasteries are not upholding their oath that Henry is leader of the church “of ” England.
Getting rid of the monks and nuns in England will increase Cromwell’s influence over the king. To that end, Cromwell sends commissioner Robin Singleton to a monastery in Scarnsea on the south coast of England. Before Singleton has time to report on any bad behavior among the monks, he is beheaded, a frightening reminder of the Boleyn execution. When Cromwell learns of the murder, he sends Matthew Shardlake to investigate. Shardlake is a hunchback, a man who had wanted to enter the church after being educated at a monastery school, but whose physical limitations had prevented it. Shardlake arrives at the monastery to investigate the murder of the king’s commissioner, assisted by Mark Poer, a young man who was looking to improve his fortunes by working for Cromwell.
Shardlake discovers quickly that murder isn’t the only sin at the monastery. There is sexual misconduct, thievery, smuggling, and embezzlement. Shortly after their arrival, a novice is poisoned and they learn of the disappearance a year earlier of a young woman from the town who had worked in the monastery infirmary. The death of Robin Singleton is only part of the Shardlake’s problem.
DISSOLUTION is the best kind of historical mystery. The author puts the reader into the middle of the sixteeth century by making the doubts and hopes of the characters real and timely in any century. Matthew is a committed reformer forced to confront the less than noble motivations of those involved in the new religion. The atmosphere is compelling; the reader feels the cold and the damp of the monastery, the bleakness of a port town in winter. Shardlake is a man who has suffered the taunts and the superstitious cruelty of the people of his time. He and his assistant, Mark, are beacons of rectitude among the monks who are motivated by their dark angels. Shardlake shouldn’t be likable but he is.
This is a series that will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction. As a mystery, it should appeal to everyone. I came to the series late and I am happy that late is better than never. I look forward to the next Shardlake book.