The year is 1537, Henry VIII is on the throne of England, has separated the country from the Papal rule of Rome and declared himself as the supreme head of the church. This is the setting for Dissolution, the first book in the Matthew Shardlake series written by CJ Sansom.
The country is in turmoil as Henry begins the dissolution (destruction) of the monasteries throughout the land, and begins an extreme reformation of religious practices such as banning all forms of idolatry in churches including religious relics, forbidding the lighting of candles in churches, and outlawing any language or form of Catholicism. People are living in confusion and fear as arrests and executions become commonplace, many organised and carried out on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s First Minister of State. It is Cromwell who sends for Matthew Shardlake to investigate a murder that has taken place at a monastery on the Sussex coast.
Matthew is a young lawyer of Lincoln’s Inn, London, a man of infinite integrity, incorruptible, and with a fine enquiring mind ……… but with a physical deformity ……. a hunchback. He is tasked with investigating the murder of Cromwell’s commissioner as he supervised the destruction of the Sussex monastery and the sale of the monastic land.
Throughout the book Matthew acts more as a Sherlock Homes detective than as a lawyer, revealing several sinister tales of life at the monastery as well as seemingly triggering further murders as his investigation proceeds towards an unexpected conclusion.
As I have written previously I began this series at book 4 mistakenly thinking I’d read the previous books and so returned to start the series from the beginning. This book is quite different from the 4th, the characters are less well developed (naturally) and several are not even present yet who become a significant part of Matthews life by book 4. It made me think whether I would have continued with the series from the beginning; all of the action is confined to the monastery itself which seems restrictive, a bit like a whodunnit murder mystery inside an old country house with nobody allowed to leave until the killer is revealed. This isn’t the type of book I enjoy, but the others in the series ARE, so ……. strange advice from me …….. start with book 4 then go back to book 1!