Saturday, June 30, 2012

Off with his head!

It was difficult to listen to C.J. Sansom's Dissolution without having James Frain in my head every time the mystery novel mentioned Thomas Cromwell. I really want to read (eye or ear, I haven't decided) Hilary Mantel's trilogy about the Vicar General as well, but I fear suffering from the same problem. Ah, the hazards of watching v. reading/listening. This is why it's important, children, to read a book before you see the movie/TV show. Cromwell's presence in the novel is a somewhat menacing one, but the whole novel is kind of menacing now that I think about it.

Dissolution is the first in Sansom's series featuring hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, bravely representing the rule of law in the somewhat lawless England of King Henry VIII. Shardlake is a fervent Anglican -- hence the uneasy alliance with Cromwell -- but he doesn't believe torture and hanging are the solution for ridding the country of its papists, they just have to obey the law of the land. Among these laws was one dissolving England's many Catholic monasteries -- but when the decapitated body of the agent sent by Cromwell to implement the dissolution is found at St. Donatus in Scarnsea, Cromwell sends Shardlake on a mission to discover what happened.

Shardlake, accompanied by Mark Poer -- an impetuous young lawyer he is mentoring, discovers that the monks and laypeople residing at St. Donatus are hiding a multitude of secrets, not just who took a sword and killed the agent in a manner disturbingly similar to the death of Anne Boleyn. Several more bodies turn up during Shardlake's investigations -- from which he suffers tremendous guilt -- before he uncovers the truth.

The book is quite atmospheric; in classic mystery fashion a snowstorm isolates the monastery early on and the bitter cold, snow and the surrounding frozen (and then melting) marshland add a frisson of chill -- both actual and metaphoric. I enjoyed the multiple meanings of dissolution that underlie the narrative. There is a large cast of characters, very few of whom have any redeeming qualities. Shardlake is a sympathetic hero for the most part -- his disability (referred to in this way several times in the novel, which struck me as odd) has made him shy and self-conscious, but his staunch Anglicanism can be a bit trying to 21st century readers. I certainly believe in the author's research (he's got a PhD in History), as I learned much about the dissolution. The mystery is a pretty simple one (except for how), but following Shardlake's path to the solution was somewhat entertaining as his own prejudices often blur his otherwise sharp mind. I enjoy historical mysteries and see no reason not to read further in this series.

Dissolution is narrated by Steven Crossley. I've heard him read once and enjoyed his work a lot. He is very good here as well. Shardlake narrates his own story and his despair and weariness are vivid in Crossley's reading. He confidently creates individual voices for the novel's other characters that accurately reflect that person's motivations and social status. The standouts include Mark, whose callow immaturity is perfectly voiced with volume and a high register; the Catholic Moor Brother Guy, the infirmarian, with growly Spanish-inflected speech; Prior Mortimus, whose sadistic nature is clear in the anger with which he speaks; and Brother Jerome, a monk with a secret. He lost his mind and his strong body while undergoing torture in the Tower of London and his querulous, grating voice makes everyone pay attention to his ramblings.

Back to Hilary Mantel. Based on the evidence, it'll be three years before the final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy will be published.  According to this article, its title is The Mirror and the Light. So, wait for 2015 and read them all in one fell swoop? Or should I start now?  I have a personal copy of Wolf Hall and right now there is only one hold (!) on the audio of Bring Up the Bodies. But I've got that Morris reading ... not to mention the audiobooks lined up.

Oy! If only it weren't such a cliche: So many books, so little time. Let me add ... so distracted! A search brought up mention of a publication written by J.J. Wright for the National Home Reading Union in 1891 called So Many Books! So Little Time! What To Do? (Wright's book is discussed in an article [p. 201] by Stephen Arata from the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Studies, which I was able to view in it's entirety via JSTOR but I don't know if that's because I'm at a library computer, so you might also find it by Googling Wright and "so many books" and looking for a pdf "On Not Paying Attention.") Although this article explains that Wright was trying to help working men and women find the time to read in the spirit of late-Victorian self-improvement, it's nice to know that some things don't change.

[This print of Cromwell was created probably a century after Cromwell's death by Wenzel Hollar, who appears to have been influenced by Hans Holbein's portrait. It lives in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
Narrated by Steven Crossley
Recorded Books, 2011.  14:37

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