The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor

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The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor

Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: A chilling and fascinating historical thriller set in a New York in the grip of the War of Independence, Andrew Taylor’s latest revels in the darker side of humanity.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: February 2013
Publisher: HarperCollins
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780007213511

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It’s hard to explain why Andrew Taylor’s novels are so chilling. They’re ghost stories that often lack ghosts, crime novels in which the crime itself feels at a remove from the rest of the action. But that’s really the secret of their power: while in most thrillers, the bogeyman is a single entity, easy to pinpoint and therefore easy to excise from the rest of the healthy fictional world, things are never so simple in the universes Taylor creates. What is frightening in an Andrew Taylor novel? Everything.

The Scent of Death is a companion novel to Taylor’s bestselling The American Boy, a Regency mystery which featured a young Edgar Allen Poe and his family. The Scent of Death, though, (I’m advisedly not calling it a sequel or a prequel) is set in New York in 1778. It is connected to The American Boy by only one character, the nebulous Mr Noak, who appears in The Scent of Death in the guise of a clerk to businessman Mr Townley. Noak lurks at the edge of The Scent of Death’s plot like an incubus, creepily present but fundamentally unexplained until the final denouement – much like the central mystery itself. The book begins with the murder of Mr Pickett, a stranger to New York, but this seemingly random event spiderwebs outwards, revealing connections between blacks and whites, Loyalists and Rebels and members of the highest and lowest parts of New York society.

The Scent of Death’s protagonist, and the man tasked with sorting out this impossible tangle, is Edward Savill. Savill is a London clerk from the American Department, and he has been sent to administer justice to a New York gripped by the War of Independence. He lodges with the Wintours, an aristocratic family who have fallen on hard times, finding them – especially Captain Wintour’s pretty wife Arabella – fascinating and puzzling to an equal degree. He slowly begins to realise that their outward respectability hides a distinctly murky past, one that epitomises how great the cultural gap between England and America has come to be.

Taylor’s choice of setting – a New York loyal to George III, filled with Americans who still see themselves as transplanted Britons – is a startlingly illuminating one. In The Scent of Death, the War of Independence is shown not as the plucky David-vs-Goliath foregone conclusion of popular imagination, but as a very uncertain and very emotionally damaging civil war. As winter falls over New York at the end of 1778, there are no certainties about the future. The novel’s monied characters have staked their fortunes and their reputations on a British victory, but even as this begins to look increasingly unlikely they are unwilling to imagine what defeat to the rebels might mean. The reader, of course, has the uncomfortable knowledge that just such a defeat is on its way – but, crucially, there are no decisive battles in The Scent of Death, no resolutions to the larger conflict, just a slow creep towards despair.

As I’ve said, everything in an Andrew Taylor novel feels subtly, unnervingly wrong. It isn’t simply that nobody can be trusted, although that’s part of it. Every glance Savill encounters seems to be hostile, and every character he meets exhibits some kind of small-time nastiness, either physical or mental. But this is a cold and unfriendly universe, and in it inanimate objects, architecture, even the weather all seem to be conspiring against Taylor’s hero. Not that Savill himself is particularly heroic. Struggling to come to terms with his enforced separation from a beloved daughter and a not-so-beloved wife, over the course of The Scent of Death he’s drawn into actions that range from the morally dubious to the morally reprehensible.

This isn’t a book that gives you someone to root for – on the contrary it’s entirely unpleasant, peopled by villains and rogues. Despite your best intentions, though, it twists you up deeper and deeper into the coils of its sometimes slow but always darkly fascinating plot. Taylor has a beautiful eye for historical colour and a pitch-perfect ear for accurate turn of phrase. His 1778 New York leaps to life in a way that feels effortlessly right. From the first page you can tell that you’re in the hands of a master of the genre. The Scent of Death is a slow burner rather than a relentless page-turner, and I’m not sure it’s as fantastically successful as its sister novel The American Boy, but it is still a beautifully executed and engrossing historical thriller from a writer very much on top of his game.

For more of Taylor's special brand of historical mysteries, try The Anatomy of Ghosts.

Buy The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor at Amazon.com.


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