It's 1537, the height of the English Reformation, and Thomas Cromwell, vicar general for the court of Henry VIII, is absolutely bent on the systematic ruthless dismantling of England's feudal monastery system, "re-patriating" the monastic lands and the church's accumulated wealth and destroying the evidence of papist Roman Catholicism inherent in such things as church buildings and relics. Robin Singleton, a commissioner charged with securing the peaceable surrender of the Monastery of St Donatus in Scarnsea, has been brutally murdered and Cromwell realizes that his agenda will be jeopardized if the evidence of this opposition is allowed to see the light of day. Dr Matthew Shardlake, a reformer and one of the sharpest lawyers in England, is dispatched to solve the murder at all costs and complete the dissolution of the monastery as planned. Cromwell, with very thinly veiled threats has made it quite clear that Shardlake's failure to complete the mission will be seen as evidence of questionable loyalty to the Reformation program.
I confess I saw the details of the murder investigation and the ultimate solution to the murder as entertaining but relatively pedestrian as mysteries go. Like so many authors, Sansom relies heavily on the age old literary device of the bad boys of the piece never knowing when to shut up. Left to his own devices as a sleuth, I suspect that Shardlake might have found one "nave", but not the "knave" that Cromwell was insisting upon. That's the bad news!
The good news is that the mystery is more than entertaining enough to keep the pages turning and to allow Sansom a setting in which he can embellish his story line with a wealth of historic details, atmosphere and character development that I personally found much more entertaining than the story itself. Three distinct ways of life in Reformation England are explored - the commoner, the religious life within the cloistered confines of a monastery, and the upper middle class that aspire to property and wealth without actually being part of the nobility. Of particular interest is Sansom's development of Shardlake's character as his disenchantment with Cromwell's political agenda grows into worry and self-doubt coupled with fear over Cromwell's brutality.
In summary, "Dissolution" is a lightweight easy-reading mystery that achieves much greater heights on the strength of the historical background and compelling re-creation of a particularly frightening political agenda.