Dissolution by C J Sansom

Dissolution Reading C J Sansom’s alternate history novel Dominion a few months ago reminded me that I still hadn’t read any of his Shardlake books, despite meaning to for years. I noticed last week that my library had the whole series available as ebooks, so it seemed as good a time as any to get started with the first one, Dissolution.

Dissolution is set in the winter of 1537, just after the death of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. Having broken away from the Catholic church and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, the King, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, has begun the process of dissolution of the country’s monasteries. After the closure of some of the smaller religious houses in the north led to rebellion, Cromwell is now taking a different approach and is sending commissioners to the larger monasteries to offer pensions to the monks in the hope that they will voluntarily surrender – or if not, to search for signs of fraud, corruption or other legal reasons to close them down.

At the monastery of Scarnsea, on the coast of Sussex, disaster strikes when one of Cromwell’s commissioners, Robin Singleton, is found brutally murdered in the monastery kitchen. Cromwell sends another of his men, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake, to investigate the mystery of Singleton’s death and discover what has been happening at the monastery. Accompanied by his assistant Mark Poer, Shardlake sets out for Scarnsea but what he learns when he arrives there convinces him that the commissioner had been about to make an important discovery before he was killed.

As a murder mystery, there’s everything here that you would expect: the detective and his sidekick, the isolated house (monastery in this case) cut off from the rest of the world, the small group of suspects each with their own secrets and motives, and the usual string of clues and red herrings. But what made this book stand out for me among other historical mysteries was the fascinating setting and detailed portrayal of monastic life. There are some obvious similarities with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, although this is an easier read – and set in a completely different time period, of course.

I have read other novels that focus on the dissolution of the monasteries (books such as The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau, for example) but usually from the point of view of the monks and nuns whose way of life has been destroyed. This book is narrated by Shardlake himself and it’s interesting to see dissolution from his perspective, as a dedicated reformer. Shardlake gradually becomes disillusioned with Henry and Cromwell, but for a long time he tries to justify what they are doing and it is only towards the end of the book that he allows himself to have doubts. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that Shardlake is a hunchback and has spent his life trying to overcome prejudice and rejection. The fact that he has had to deal with a disability in a time much more unenlightened than our own adds another dimension to his personality.

Having taken so long to get round to reading this book, I’m pleased that I did enjoy it! I correctly named the murderer quite early in the story, but while I would like to pretend that I had cleverly managed to solve the mystery I have to admit it was really just a guess. This didn’t spoil the rest of the story at all, though – I had to wait until almost the end of the book to find out if I was right and even after Singleton’s killer was eventually revealed, there were still one or two other developments that took me by surprise! I will definitely be continuing the series with the second book, Dark Fire – but probably not immediately.

Dominion by C.J. Sansom

Dominion C.J. Sansom is probably best known for his Shardlake novels, a mystery series set in Tudor England. Dominion, however, is set in the twentieth century – but not the twentieth century that you and I are familiar with. Before we even finish reading the first chapter, we know that something is very wrong. In Sansom’s alternate world, Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, changing the course of history as we know it.

As the novel opens in November 1952, we begin to see what a high price Britain has paid for peace with Hitler. Yes, the war was brought to a premature end, avoiding more deaths and devastation, but now the Gestapo are established in central London, Britain’s Jews are being rounded up and removed from the cities, and Winston Churchill, who never actually managed to become Prime Minister, has gone into hiding as the leader of the British Resistance.

The story is told from the perspectives of four characters, all with different backgrounds and beliefs. The first of these is David Fitzgerald, one of many people who are unhappy with the way things are in Britain. When he is approached by the Resistance movement, David agrees to use his position as a civil servant to provide them with confidential information. He decides to protect his wife, Sarah, by not telling her that he is working as a spy…but he is also hiding another, equally dangerous secret – one that nobody must ever discover.

Sarah Fitzgerald, David’s wife, has been a pacifist for many years, like her father and sister. She has always believed that signing a peace treaty in 1940 was the right thing to do in order to avoid more lives being lost. However, Sarah’s views are now beginning to change.

We also meet Frank Muncaster, a scientist and an old friend of David’s from university. Frank is now in a mental hospital after pushing his brother, Edgar, through a window during an argument. The Resistance believe that before they began to fight, Edgar – another scientist – may have given his brother some shocking information about his work in America. Finally, there’s Gunther Hoth, a German who is in London on a secret mission. Could Frank Muncaster have the information he needs?

Dominion is a chilling and thought-provoking novel, all the more frightening because the world C.J. Sansom describes is so realistic and believable. In many ways, the Britain of Dominion is not greatly different from the real Britain, but as the story unfolds we begin to see more and more subtle differences, more and more ways in which authoritarian rule has replaced the freedoms we take for granted.

As well as being an alternate history, this is also an exciting thriller. After a slow start I found it became very gripping and suspenseful, with some cliff hanger chapter endings and a few moments when I feared for the fates of some of the characters. The Great Smog of 1952 is incorporated into the novel and really adds to the oppressive atmosphere. There were some parts of the story, though, that felt superfluous and had little relevance to the main plot and this made the book feel longer than it really needed to be.

My favourite character was Frank Muncaster, who through no fault of his own finds himself at the centre of the conflict between the Germans and the British Resistance. We are given lots of flashbacks to Frank’s childhood when, as a shy and lonely boy, he was bullied at school, leaving him suffering from low self-esteem and finding it difficult to make friends. Of all the characters in the novel, I thought Frank was particularly well-written and I found myself warming to him in a way I never really did to any of the others.

Dominion is a disturbing and unsettling novel with a sinister vision of what our lives could have been like had just one or two different decisions been made at crucial moments in history. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but when I reached the final page it was good to know that the world I was returning to was not quite the same as the one I had just finished reading about!

Dominion tour

I read Dominion as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and giveaways, please see the tour schedule.