Monday, August 22, 2011

Dissolution and Disillusion in Tudor Crime Novel

Reflection on DISSOLUTION by C.J. Sansom (Penguin 2003).

Discovering who decapitated the King’s commissioner in the kitchen of Scarnsea Monastery is truly the least of the pleasures in this novel.  The author ties up threads of the plot dutifully over the last few dozen pages; but the pleasure has been in his exploration of the story’s setting.

In England, 1536, King Henry VIII is “reforming” the Church of England away from the Church of Rome. He and his agents are violently tearing England’s population away from one set of religious traditions and doctrines, making Henry head of the church to consolidate his power.  To secure his line, Henry has divorced one queen and beheaded another for adultery – his “proof” being a confession tortured out of Mark Smeaton, whose real-life ordeal figures in C. J. Sansom’s fiction.  Number three is Jane Seymour, who will die bearing a son.

The “dissolution” of the title refers, first, to the literal “dissolving” of Roman Catholic monasteries and redistributing their lands to Henry’s supporters.   But the title also refers to certainties of law, faith, and tradition that also dissolve during this time.  Religious zealotry on both sides, Protestant and Catholic, matters less to the unfolding events than vested interest in regimes and property. 

In this setting, a good-hearted agent of the King can excuse torture as a means to ensure homeland security.   Different parties show “brutal certainty” in their justifications for violence.  Religion is the pretext; class interest and corruption are the subtext.   Published in 2003, this novel’s resonances with post-9/11 issues may be intentional. 

The king’s agent is our narrator, Matthew Shardlake (read, “Sherlock”), a hunch-back and lawyer who rose from poverty and ridicule through these years of reform.  He traces his ambition and self-confidence to a religious experience following a mean schoolmaster’s humiliation of him:
[When] I heard a voice inside my head, it came from inside me but was not mine.  “You are not alone,” it said and suddenly a great warmth, a sense of love and peace, infused my being… (35)
Gung-ho for law and reform, and canny enough about clues, Shardlake is na├»ve about those who are nominally on his side.  His Watson is Mark Poer, an appealing and ambitious young man whose growing doubts about his master Shardlake cause friction.   Shardlake's disillusionment with reform and with his protege are the emotional core of the story.

In many ways, this is the story of the detective’s education.  A “Sodomite” monk, gay Gabriel, is viewed at first with disgust, but ultimately with sympathy for a good man who “never chose to be this way.”  An Arab doctor, convert from Islam, figures strongly in the story, and Shardlake learns to trust him.  He gradually learns to mistrust his King and his employer.

These Medieval times have provided rich backdrops for Ellis Peters’ “Brother Cadfael” series, and Umberto Eco’s blockbuster The Name of the Rose.  There are echoes of Eco here, including a passing reference to a classical book that was integral to Rose, but Sansom is more interested in the story than in its texture.  In that regard, he lies a bit right of center on a spectrum between Ellis Peters and Eco.