Dissolution by C J SANSOM

Historical crime writers have a well-worn track leading down memory lane, providing a slightly different form of escapism for writer and reader from the rather down-beat stories of contemporary life. You only have to look at the success of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes to see that nostalgia sells. If you can transport the modern reader – who is fed up with talk of the problems of society today – into another and apparently simpler era, then you can build up a big following, and your books will be on airport stands everywhere.

An added attraction is what you might call the Time Team syndrome; learning about the past in painless fashion. After all, many of us learned our history from Jean Plaidy’s books, didn’t we?

So the historical crime novel has a ready audience and this means Big Bucks for the writer – provided he or she can do the research well enough to convince.

Of those people writing mysteries set in the past, two stand out for Roman times: Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davies. For early medieval times, you can’t do better than the Sister Fidelma series set in 6th Century Ireland or Ellis Peters with the Brother Cadfael series. These deal not only with crime, but also the social problems of their time, and what’s more, they explain them so well to the modern reader, that we understand and even, perhaps, remember them. Another writer who produced books in popular vein backed by excellent research, was Georgette Heyer.

There are many other writers who attempt this genre and fail because they haven’t taken the time and trouble to research their backgrounds. Recently I started to read a story set in l6th century Scotland, in which the girl sat down on a tartan-covered stool. Tartan as a furnishing fabric was not used until Queen Victoria went overboard for it. Did I read on? No, I didn’t.

You will say that many people wouldn’t know that fact about tartan and that not knowing it, wouldn’t spoil the reader’s enjoyment of the story. True. But it did spoil mine, and as it’s me who’s having to do this review, I’m entitled to draw the line at books based on poor research. Because, if the writer got that one fact wrong, what else did he or she get wrong?

Does it matter? Well, yes, it does, because the pictures writers put into our minds tend to stay there, and if they’re basically misconceived, then we’re carrying around a misconception in our heads.

For instance, there are writers who take a modern day woman and transport her with all her strengths and weaknesses, back in time – and expect you to believe in her. Human nature doesn’t change much, but society does. Did you know, for instance, that women were forbidden to read the bible right up to Tudor times? And we won’t even look at women’s problems in law concerning ownership of property or divorce here.

So a convincing historical crime writer is something of a phenomenon and worth serious consideration.

Of the current crop of historical writers, I found myself eager to read more of some writers than others and – given that they were equally sound on research – this was because I found some of the heroes or heroines to be more appealing than others. Pretty nearly all are formula written, but if you want to identify with your hero or heroine, then this excludes – for me – certain well known writers such as Michael Jecks, whose characters fail to appeal to me.

It is said by some pundits that a hero must be the character who changes most during the course of the story. Now we can all think of characters who don’t change at all; Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot for a start, Sherlock Holmes and Brother Cadfael. Perhaps it isn’t necessary for them to agonise and alter? Perhaps their persona is so attractive to the reader already that it isn’t necessary? Perhaps we really prefer to trust a pair of safe hands to see us through the complexities of the crime, rather than agonise with the drunk, divorced contemporary detective of whom we’ve seen so much in recent years?

It is true that it is difficult to produce character growth if you are writing a series, but it is not impossible.

It is also true that an attractive protagonist can win and keep a faithful readership.

The third important element in mysteries is that the writer must be able to write well.

Because he writes well, has produced an attractive hero and done his research, I chose C J Sansom to represent the genre. He came to prominence with a series set through the reign of Henry VIII in the l6th century. His main character is a hunchbacked lawyer called Matthew Shardlake, who works on commission first for Thomas Cromwell in DISSOLUTION and DARK FIRE, and then for Thomas Cranmer in SOVEREIGN and REVELATION.

The BBC have commissioned an adaptation of DISSOLUTION with Kenneth Branagh starring as Shardlake, and the rest of the books are set to follow. Sansom has also written a thriller set in Spain in l940, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, called WINTER IN MADRID.

The second in the series – DARK FIRE – won the 2005 Ellie Peters Historical Dagger, awarded by the CWA. And he was Very Highly Commended in the 2007 CWA Dagger in the Library award for the Shardlake series – that’s an award judged by librarians. He achieved a Ph.D in history and, before becoming a full-time writer, was a lawyer. An excellent background. I haven’t been able to find a picture, but my guess is that he is not a hunch-back.

They say that history is written by the victors, who slant the story in their favour. Sometimes, though, history is written by the losers, who find a way to smear the reputation of the winners which salves their pride.

History books from Roman Catholic countries paint Henry VIII as a greedy, randy monarch ditching his Catholic wife in order to marry a Protestant piece of arm candy – Anne Boleyn – and his dissolution of the monasteries is stigmatised as theft. This is massively over-simplifying what happened, and what happened forms the background to Sansom’s series set in the times of Henry VIII, of which DISSOLUTION is the first of four.

To understand the background of these four books, we have to go back a bit in time. The Wars of the Roses wracked England for years, but were finally brought to an end when Henry VII defeated the Yorkist Richard III, and married his niece Elizabeth of York. Elisabeth was fertile, careful taxation filled the treasury, and when Henry VII died, his younger son succeeded to the throne as Henry VIII. Henry’s elder brother had died unexpectedly young and on his demise Henry married his brother’s fiancée, the Spanish and Catholic Katherine. Henry was a bright lad, well educated, sporty and taller than most. He was, you might say, more York than Lancaster in looks and character, though it would not have been politic to remark on that in those days. But continuity of the fragile peace hung upon Henry and Katherine providing a successor – and despite many pregnancies, only one girl child made it – that was the girl who would eventually be crowned as Mary 1st.

Henry was frantic for an heir. No girl had succeeded to the throne since Matilda of Stephen & Matilda battling fame many centuries before, and she couldn’t hold on to it, remember. So Henry VIII did not believe Mary could succeed him without plunging the country back into civil war. Katherine was ageing fast, and Henry was getting no younger. So he tried for an annulment, buttering up the Pope with a defence of Catholicism against the radical new ideas of Protestantism which were beginning to sweep through Europe.

The Pope responded by granting Henry the title of Defender of the Faith, but failed to grant him an annulment; the Pope had to consider – apart from anything else – that Katherine was the aunt of the very Catholic Spanish king.

So Henry was in deep trouble. He’d sired a number of bastards who made it through to adulthood, but nowadays doctors believe that at some point in his randy youth, he’d been infected with a disease which was responsible for the poor quality of two out of three of the legitimate children he sired, and by his later ill health, the ulcers on his leg, etc.

This, of course, was not understood in those days. The blame was settled firmly on Katherine for not being able to produce a son. Meanwhile the new ideas were running through the nobility and even down through the professional classes, and into the newly-emerging middle classes who had access to books, polarising society further – not into York v Lancaster – but into Protestant v Catholic. Powerful Catholic families supported Katherine as did Wolseley and Thomas More, but after she was divorced, both they and their Protestant opponents looked at the options available to them and started grooming possible successors. At the same time Henry’s ministers looked abroad for possible Protestant alliances in trade and war – which meant excluding Catholic Spain and France. Chiefly they looked to the Netherlands, with which trade was flourishing, and with which there were family ties already. (The Yorks and Thomas More had taken refuge in Bruges in times past, and Henry’s sister was married to the Burgundian ruler of the Netherlands at the time.)

The modern term ‘minister’, is pretty meaningless as there was no such office as Prime Minister in those days – not until the l8th C did this term come to mean anything. But power was invested in the King’s favourites, chiefly in whoever was Chancellor of the Exchequer. But as Henry’s list of wives grew, so his ministers might rise and fall; they had a real balancing act to do, to raise money for the King and Court, to build foreign alliances to help trade, to help the King find a new and fertile wife, and to keep the Protestant flame going.

Anne Boleyn’s star faded as she failed to provide the king with a son. Jane Seymour took her place, only to die after producing Henry’s only legitimate male heir, who became Edward VI. It is at this point that Sansom starts his story. To recap: Katherine had been divorced, offspring a girl; Anne Boleyn, executed, offspring a girl. Jane Seymour, died in childbirth, offspring a rather puny boy. Who next?

Anne of Cleves was next chosen – by Henry’s ministers – but that match didn’t ‘take’ as Henry was by then flirting with the pretty if slightly stupid young Catherine Howard. Henry was infatuated, calling her his rose without a thorn. Unfortunately the girl had been brought up in a dissolute household and was far from being the virgin he thought her . . . although by this time it is probable that Henry was incapable of producing an heir as his physical deterioration was proceeding fast.

Meanwhile times were changing. Protestantism kept gaining ground, a more or less unstoppable trend as more and more people were able to read the Bible for themselves. Reading the bible, incidentally, was something strictly forbidden for the populace by the Catholic church, and this was still enshrined in law; sometimes the full force of the law descended upon an outspoken critic of Catholicism but generally speaking most people just gradually became educated enough to decide what to believe for themselves.

Churches which accepted Protestant ideas, remained and flourished. The influence of Catholicism waned. Abbeys which had once boasted hundreds of monks, now had mere dozens. The lavishly built monasteries, abbeys and churches became neglected as funds dried up.

The Reformation was under way – and, let’s face it, the Catholics were their own worst enemies and there was much need for reform. Orders of monks which had been founded with ideas of poverty and charity, had become fat with good living, and parsimonious in charity. Indulgences were openly sold – buy a dozen masses and your soul will be saved. Supposed relics of saints fed superstition; I love the jest in an early Blackadder when Tony Robinson queries the offer of two of St Peter’s finger bones, saying he thought they only came in boxes of a dozen.

Corruption was endemic. If a man who had taken even the lowest of canonical orders, committed a crime, he could not be taken into a civil court, but must be tried by members of his own order – which meant in effect giving him something like diplomatic immunity. Almost any sin you can think of – moral or against the law of the land – could be atoned for by a hefty payment to the Church. As for the Church’s tenants, rents were being raised all the time, but the tenants were given little or no support in bad times. True, the monks provided some national medical and hospitality for travellers, but no experimentation or scientific thought was allowed; the Pope had said that he was the centre of the earth, Rome was the centre of the world, and the sun and moon revolved around him. Anyone who disagreed was a heretic and could be burned at the stake. Great thinkers such as Galileo were gagged because of this. Reform was much needed.

But reform was not what they got. Instead, they got dissolution. The top people in the abbeys were given decent pensions, the rump were given short shrift, the servants had to find new masters, and generally speaking the local magnates and anyone in favour with the Crown managed to come out on top by being granted – or buying – monastery lands, and or the contract for pulling down or selling redundant church property.

I think it was Orson Wells who said that a country like Switzerland which lived in peace, produced…the cuckoo clock, and that countries in turmoil produced all the great artists. So certain times in history give you the right background for murder and mayhem. The Tudor times certainly is a prime example.

As I said before, one of the tricks in writing crime fiction is to think up a hero or heroine who is memorable, someone with whom you can be content to spend time. Matthew Shardlake is one such. He is a youngish lawyer, living in London, with a somewhat idealistic slant on the world; he is also a hunchback, which gives him an air of vulnerability which appeals particularly to women readers. Clever and hard-working, Matthew attracts the patronage of Henry’s powerful ministers, who involve him in various cases of murder, each of which has a background history which relates to the troubled times in which they lived.

This first book – DISSOLUTION – occurs in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution, which Matthew had witnessed. He is sent to solve the strange killing of a king’s official who’d been sent down into Sussex to persuade the worldly prelate of a rich abbey to agree to the terms offered by the king for dissolution. The killing is one of those ‘impossible’ locked room murders, which Matthew is pretty good at solving.

Matthew and his outspoken servant find much to deplore at the abbey, and little to admire. The life and times of the huge abbey are well depicted, as is their lack of charity to the neighbouring poor. There is a great variety of monks, each with their own agenda, and some of these characters are very odd indeed. A list of characters and a map of the abbey are included, so the reader can keep track of who’s who.

Occasionally – and this happens more often in current crime fiction – you get an author who is keen on conspiracy theories. Now in many respects, there’s no great harm in this. You only have to look at history to turn up some beauties; the baby in the warming pan rumour helped to get rid of the unpopular James II. The death of the two young princes in the Tower inspired considerable aggro for Henry VII, as Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel were Yorkist look-alikes, discovered and groomed by interested parties to head rebellions. In our own day, of course, we have Who Killed Kennedy…or Marilyn Monroe.

Sansom has not one, but four goes at conspiracy theories in his books covering Henry’s reign. This first one – DISSOLUTION – produces the novel idea that one of Anne Boleyn’s supposed lovers had a sister who inherited the family sword and decapitated the man responsible for her brother’s torture, and execution. Shall I say repeat that, slowly?

To put that theory to rest; Anne Boleyn was accused of witchcraft and of affairs with the low-born Mark Smeaton, her musician servant – along with her brother and a couple of their friends. Mark was the only one who gave way under torture and produced a confession, which was subsequently used as a clincher against her. There is no doubt that the charges were trumped up to allow the king to be rid of Anne, and there is not the slightest evidence for anything else dreamed up by Sansom. Pure conspiracy, pure supposition.

In later stories, we jump to Catherine Howard’s ill-fated marriage as Henry’s fifth queen – and in the last one we see his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, decide that it is her duty to marry the ageing king, partly if not wholly, to ensure the continuance of interest in the Protestant faith. Meanwhile the executions and indeed the burnings of those pronounced to be traitors and heretics continue.

The murders that Sansom thinks up are fairly nasty and it seemed to me that they got nastier as the series went on – the final story – REVELATION – mirrors the horrors of the book of Revelation in the bible, and they are not nice, not at all. Sansom doesn’t dwell on the nastiness as some writers do; but he certainly has an eye for what makes the reader shudder.

It worries me a bit that readers may be so carried away by his conspiracy theories that they take them for gospel truth. As Dan Brown shows, people are infinitely gullible, and if you spin them a story well enough, they’ll come to believe it.

Sansom’s word pictures are excellent. Here he is introducing his hero at the start of DISSOLUTION:

‘Once the prospect of meeting my patron Lord Cromwell and talking with him, seeing him at the seat of power he now occupied, would have thrilled me, but this last year I had started to become weary; weary of politics and the law, men’s trickery and the endless tangle of their ways.’

A nice word picture of the character of the man.

Then here he is riding into London: ‘As I approached London Bridge I averted my eyes from the arch, where the heads of those executed for treason stood on their long poles, the gulls circling and pecking.

‘The great bridge was thronged with people as usual; many of the merchant classes were in mourning black for Queen Jane, who had died of childbed fever two weeks before. Tradesfolk cried their wares from the shops on the ground floor of the buildings, built so closely upon it they looked as though they might topple into the river at any moment. On the upper storeys women were hauling in their washing, for clouds were now darkening the sky from the west. Gossiping and calling to each other, they put me in mind, in my melancholy humour, of crows cawing in a great tree.’

This is not only a good word picture but it’s also one of movement, not static. The gulls circle the heads on Tower Bridge, the women gossip as they take in their washing. His descriptions are economical with words but take you right into the scene.

His characterisation is also good, physical descriptions are always qualified with judgments as to character, which makes it much easier to remember who is who in his stories.

Now as to his attitude to sex. Here his invention of Matthew as a hunchback means that his hero can fall in love and entertain high hopes of this or that woman, but at the same time there’s a built-in reason why such hopes are never fulfilled. In the same way he takes on a servant who is with him for a while, and then disappears. This is a writer’s trick, to give Sansom the opportunity to experience love and loss, but never to settle down.

Sansom could also have given his book the title Desolation, to describe what happens to those thrown out of the abbeys. Or Disillusionment, which is certainly what comes to Matthew during the course of his investigations; he starts by believing all the Tudor spin stories about the rectitude of the king, and the vices of Anne Boleyn and those who supported her. He ends up by believing in nothing much.

His belief in the goodness of human nature is also transformed to a more cynical outlook on life, as he sees corruption adding to the wealth of those who jump on Henry’s band wagon, and that the poor gain nothing by a change of masters from church to king. He loses his faith, he suffers ill health but somehow manages to keep going. He makes and keeps friends but has to learn that nobody is perfect.

And yet he carries on working doggedly for justice.

He is an admirable hero.

I don’t know what Sansom is working on nowadays. Revelation came out in 2008 and there’s no further information available on his website to date, except for the magic words ‘tba’. All I can say is that I hope he has many more books to come and it will be most interesting to see in what direction he goes next. Certainly there is more scope for him to continue with Matthew Shardlake as he negotiates the return of Catholicism under Queen Mary…and the swing back to Protestantism under Elizabeth.

Would I give the final accolade to this book by keeping it on my bookshelves, instead of donating it to the charity shop? Yes, I think I might well wish to re-read it some time in the future. Matthew Shardlake is right up there with my other favourite detectives.