Friday, 5 March 2010

Dissolution, book review

by C J Sansom
Book review
March 2010

I seem to have a problem with C J Sansom.

I was introduced to his book "Dissolution" by Belle, who had devoured all three of his Shardlake series and enjoyed them hugely. Notwithstanding this endorsement, I approached it with some caution.

You see, I had a crack at reading another of his books, "Winter in Madrid", a few months ago and found it ponderous and was discarded half way through. I very rarely give up on a book after the first quarter, so you can understand my misgivings.

The Shardlake series is based on an interesting premise. Shardlake is a hunchbacked lawyer in 1537, serving as an aide to Cromwell and his new revolutionary government. Henry V111 has conveniently proclaimed himself the Supreme Head of the Church and outlawed Catholicism.

The outcome is a religious melting pot with the the embryonic state church is emerging, the Catholic church and it's monasteries are being dissolved, and the fundamentalist Anabaptists are energing from the shadows of Europe.

Into this melting pot one of the Kings commissioners is murdered within Scarnsea Monastery and Shardlake is sent to bring the culprit to justice.

So, you have a murder whodunnit set on an obscure period which should be a riveting read. James Naughtie, writing in the Sunday Times, likened Shardlake to a "Tudor Morse" and even Colin Dexter described it as "The best crime novel I have read this year".

I hesitate to contradict such eminient reviewers, but I am unable to fully echo their enthusiasm. It was a good book, but not great.

I have pondered my reaction for a couple of weeks because I can't help but admire the beauty of Sansom's writing, nor criticise the origiality of the plot. So what was it that let it down? It finally came to me the other day. If Sansom were a painter he would specialise in vivid and detailed landscapes. His skill with the brush would be evident but he would be less adept at portrait paining.

What I am trying to say is that his description of the historical landscape is fantastic, as was his description of a war torn Seville in the previous book. However, his characters seem strangely two dimensional in a three dimensional landscape. They existed to carry the story along, but never really came to life for me.

Belle suggested that it is better if you read it quickly rather than in the brief snatches I was obliged to adopt, and that Shardlake comes to life as you read the sequels. This may well be true, but I closed the cover of Dissolution with a sense of relief rather than a hunger for more.

Will I read the next book? Probably yes, but not just yet.

For now I have the sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on the go which, in contrast to Dissolution, I am devouring at a rate of knots.


Halfie said...

Captain, I've just clicked on your blog expecting to read "This is Birmingham, a book review" - and apparently it doesn't exist, even though it shows up on my blog list. Have you deleted it?

Captain Ahab said...

that will be because I published it today instead of scheduling it for a future date. Realising my mistake I pulled it back into draft.
Sad man that I am I have accumulated quite a few advance posts so that one wont appear for about two weeks - assuming I get it finished.
Would you like to read the book for yourself - I will put it in the post if you like. Andrew D did a review of it a few days ago.
Capt A