Can a bestselling crime story be considered an Ambitious Book Project? I confess I felt pretty smug when I finally got round to reading C.J. Sansom's Dissolution, the first in his much-hyped Shardlake series. The hefty tome had a sombre, brown cover and a title in stylish, Tudor-y writing: this book, it seemed to proclaim, is no romp written by some Philippa Gregory wannabe, so serious readers - and male readers - need not be put off. But what about me? Would all this immersion-in-Tudor-times prove too much for me, who have never liked too abundant local colour in historical novels?
Sansom's pleasant prose soon dispelled my fears. He has a knack of breathing life into both scenarios and characters which saves him from the kind of show-offy look-how-much-I-know-about-this-period writing so many authors of historical novels stoop to. Whether central to solving the murder mystery or not, Shardlake's experiences in Tudor England are all of a piece, and so I swallowed a fair amount of local colour not completely necessary to the plot without a murmur
Sansom's hero, the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, is flawed but fundamentally decent, and very likeable with it. In Dissolution he is still an ardent reformer and chummy with Thomas Cromwell, who sends him as a commissioner to the monastery of Scarnsea in order to investigate the brutal murder of his predecessor. He is also supposed to persuade the abbot to agree to a voluntary surrender of the monastery - earlier forced dissolutions of monasteries sparked a rebellion, so Cromwell has to tread carefully for a while. Shardlake sets off with his young assistant Mark, who is an idealist (and alas, like so many idealists, self-righteous with it), and soon finds that both assignments are a lot trickier than he could have imagined.
Which brings me back to my initial question, whether I can justifiably label this novel an ABP. Because, as critically acclaimed as it is, it's also - unpretentiously - a whodunnit. With monks.
Shardlake comments to Mark that "people love tales of naughty monks". I'm rather like the Tudor populace in this regard. At first glance, though, the monks of Scarnsea are a lot less naughty than Cromwell or I might have hoped. The worldly abbot has no intention of forfeiting his position, not even for a handsome pension, and has made sure all new rules from the King are strictly followed. Nothing seems amiss with the monastery's finances, handled by a skinflint bursar. The old prior, who was a bit of a card, was replaced two years back by a Scots disciplinarian who takes a very dim view indeed of monk-on-monk action. Everyone minds their Ps ad Qs, and even with the little matter of a headless corpse at hand, Shardlake is hard pressed to find any way in which to pressure the abbot into giving the monastery up. Not to mention the difficulty of actually finding the killer.
The characterisation is a highlight of this novel. Apart from Shardlake himself, we have his monk suspects, who fairly leap off the page. It's true that the least flawed of the bunch, the infirmarian Brother Guy - a Moor from Spain - is also the least vivid, and has a certain approved-by-the-British-Council air, but he has his moments too. The love interest is less of a joy. Shardlake acts more like Hastings than Poirot when both he and the handsome Mark fall for the only available girl in the place, Brother Guy's female servant Alice. I couldn't but think that those of the monks who question the wisdom of having a comely wench within the monastery walls have a good point. You certainly wouldn't expect, though, that two London visitors who have a murder to solve would lose their heads so easily, and I got quite impatient with them both. Perhaps it is proof of my involvement with the characters that I wanted to tell Shardlake - and not just him, either, but another character in another context - "give it up, brother, you can do a lot better than that".
I also liked that religious differences are discussed in a way that makes it plain how much these questions matter to the characters. The second Shardlake novel Dark Fire, which I've also torn through by now, is a page turner as well, but felt a little less genuine when it came to envoking the Tudor mindset. I can well understand that Shardlake's reformist zeal would cool owing to the events in Dissolution, but his religious doubts in Dark Fire feel disappointingly modern, as do some comments on social injustice which I'd guess are more typical of the author than of his Tudor characters. Sansom pulls up in time, though, and mostly remembers that it is Shardlake who tells the story, not himself. Furthermore, there is a new sidekick in the form of the cheerfully cynical John Barak. Even with occasional lapses into class-warriordom, he is vastly preferable to the priggish Mark. I look forward to more Shardlake and Barak adventures, with or without monks.