REVIEW: Dissolution by CJ Sansom (Matthew Shardlake #1)


Series: Matthew Shardlake

Book Number: 1

Read this book for: historical mystery, medieval mystery, whodunnit

Quick Review: While not always surprising, this was an interesting blend of history (religious and political) and the elements of a Christie-style whodunnit.


Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer working for Thomas Cromwell under the reign of King Henry VIII, is sent to a remote monastery to investigate the grisly death of one of his fellow Commissioners. Can he find out who is responsible for what rapidly becomes a series of deaths, before he becomes the next victim?

DISSOLUTION is a historical novel set during the reign of King Henry VIII just after the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour. I was in the mood for something historical, and this fit the bill perfectly.

CJ Sansom does an excellent job rendering the sentiment of the various factions that existed at the time, particularly the ongoing issues in the church due to the declaration of Henry as the head of the Church in England. However, while there are a few historical figures present (notably Thomas Cromwell, with a mention of the manner of death of Anne Boleyn), this piece does not stray into the territory of co-opting real people into unrealistic situations like many other historical novels. Their roles are minor, but do help you make the connection to what was going on at the time, reinforcing the period feel rather than detracting from it

The historical setting makes for an interesting period for a mystery. Shardlake has to rely on the knowledge of the 1500s and pure reasoning and legwork to crack this mystery. It actually in some ways makes for a more satisfying read, as there are fewer unlikely “eureka” moments – the reader actually tries to reason it out alongside Shardlake.

Matthew Shardlake is also a fairly sympathetic character. With a physical disability that makes him self-conscious about his appearances, and an intelligence level that is “smart” rather than “genius”-level, it is easy to relate to him and his difficulties in taking an objective view of some of the proceedings. He has real flaws and failings and he is affected in a real way by the proceedings of the plot.

The rest of the plot and characters are reminiscent of a simpler Agatha Christie or PD James “whodunnit” – a limited cast of characters, each with their own secrets and hidden motivations, with clues that tend to point in all directions. Although the final solution is not really a surprise (particularly if you are familiar with the techniques of Christie and James), you are still pulled through the piece with the urge to find out if your guess is correct.

DISSOLUTION is an interesting and fairly well-done blend of two genres, and I would recommend picking it up if you are looking for a mystery that’s a little out of the ordinary!

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