Henry VIII is now Head of the Church of England and Reformation is in full swing. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who is particularly liked by Thomas Cromwell and works with him on various cases. When a monastery inspector is found decapitated in the monastery’s kitchen, Cromwell dispatches Shardlake to find the murderer and to get the Abbot to agree to close the monastery down. Though a hunchback, Shardlake shoulders the extreme responsibility and makes his way out of London with his young assistant.
This book was recommended to me by a local bookshop in Grantown-on-Spey and it was a fantastic recommendation. Though it takes place in the 16th century, the reader is almost instantly thrown back into that time, the scenes and characters painted so vividly you feel completely jarred out of reality. When reading a historical fiction book, you want every little detail to feel tangible, and Sansom does that with great aplomb. The concept of a hunchback lawyer solving crimes in the 1500s seemed a bit far out there to me, but I am glad that I gave the book a read.
Shardlake himself is a very likeable, sympathetic character. Self-deprecating because of his hunchback, you never are asked to pity him but you find yourself wanting to give him a hug so that he knows he is loved. He values his intelligence and knows his strengths, but especially because of his place in time sees his physical deformity as an impediment to the possibility of real love. It’s especially this little detail that makes you feel attached to Shardlake and makes him incredibly alive on the page. He is a character of his time, and yet his growing understanding of what really fuels the dissolution of the monasteries and other acts of the Reformation under Cromwell makes his thinking feel a bit more modern, allowing the current reader to connect with him yet again.
Even the “side” acts on the page are well-drawn and fleshed out, and the who-done-it of the story has a great number of twists and turns. I devoured this big book over a few days (in front of a roaring wood fire in the Highlands) and could not put it down. Every time I picked it up I stepped back into the pages so completely that to stop reading it, to stop being in that Sussex monastery with Shardlake, almost felt wrong. C.J. Sansom has done something incredible with Dissolution.