Historical crime fiction: Sansom vs Eco

I hugely enjoy historical crime fiction, and so was looking forward to reading C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution (2008), which features the lawyer-detective Matthew Shardlake, working under Thomas Cromwell as the monasteries of England are dismantled by Henry VIII.

The reviews I’d seen of Sansom’s work were extremely good, and I was rubbing my hands in anticipation not just of a single book, but of a whole new crime series. But I found Dissolution a bit of a disappointing read. Not bad, by any means, but one that fell short of expectations (an illustration, perhaps, of how the overhyping of crime novels can backfire). I was hoping for richer historical detail, and felt that the depiction of Shardlake’s moral crisis, brought about by his realisation that Cromwell is less than a model of virtue, was rather weak. I guessed the murderer pretty early on as well (which of course is not necessarily a deal-breaker – just sayin’).

As I was reading, I was reminded of a classic historical crime novel: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, first published thirty years ago (yes really) in 1980.

This was no doubt triggered by the similar narrative framework of the two novels. In both we see the detective and his younger companion entering the enclosed, ritualistic world of the monastery, now transformed into a gruesome crime scene, with monks being picked off left, right and centre, and hints of devilish forces at work. In Eco’s work, though, it’s the young companion, the novice monk Adso, who narrates the tale many years after the events have taken place, rather than the detective in the historical present. Interestingly, Sansom is an admirer of Eco’s (see Guardian interview), and has clearly drawn on aspects of the earlier novel for inspiration when writing his own.

For me, The Name of the Rose leaves Dissolution in the dust, in terms of its depth and erudition, its status as a novel of ideas, and its fabulous evocation of a past time – in this case, of medieval Europe. And I love that Eco, an Italian professor of semiotics, is said to have written The Name of the Rose just to show everyone that he could. Write an international best-seller? Non c’è problema!

There’s a good profile of Eco and his works here.

Of course, it’s possible that my lack of enthusiasm for Dissolution is a reflection (ahem) of my own critical shortcomings. Am I missing something here? Does the series get better as it goes along? Willing to give the Shardlake novels another go if the case is made persuasively enough…

2 thoughts on “Historical crime fiction: Sansom vs Eco

  1. You’ve encapsulated my disappointment in Shardlake perfectly: thank you – and phew! Have read nothing but rave reviews of Sansom’s series thus far, so persevered for another 3. Wish I hadn’t wasted my time, as I found the narrative plodding and the obvious clues extremely irritating. Also the characters seemed increasingly sketchy (to the extent that a brief description of the appearance of Catherine Parr in a coach struck me as extremely vivid!). I have a sneaking suspicion that Shardlake’s almost tiresomely virtuous character and his intellectual/moral confidence combined with a painful deformity that made him necessarily focus on the cerebral rather than sensual made him easy to understand but not that easy to engage with and, given he is the lynchpin, this is a weakness.
    Absolutely agree re ‘The Name of the Rose’: brilliant and enthralling.

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