The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

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The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: An atmospheric crime story set in 18th century Cambridge.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Michael Joseph Ltd
ISBN: 978-0718147518

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A grieving London bookseller and writer is offered a commission by Lady Anne Oldershaw. She hires him to go to Cambridge University, to help her son, who has been driven mad and claims he can see the ghost of a dead woman. Following tragedy in his own family, when his son Georgie drowned in the Thames, Holdsworth has written a successful pamphlet, The Anatomy of Ghosts, exposing the trickery and lies behind ideas about ghosts and haunting. The pamphlet was inspired by his anger at his wife Maria, whose response to Georgie’s death was to give money to a dodgy medium, and who ended up in the river at the same spot as her son.

I was not that concerned about the mystery in this novel. What I did like was the quality of Andrew Taylor’s writing, and the way in which he skilfully evokes atmosphere and builds up a really interesting picture of 18th century university life. There is a secret society which in reality is mostly a drinking club, albeit one with particularly nasty features like an initiation ritual which involves raping a virgin.

Holdsworth’s mission gives him an opportunity to go round interviewing a range of residents of the college, and those in the town who have connections with the university. The dead woman whose ghost worries Frank Oldershaw was a Mrs Sylvia Whichcote, who was found drowned in a pond.

Not everything is revealed to the reader through Holdsworth’s investigations. Some of the novel is from his viewpoint though always in the third person, but there are also lots of scenes revealing the people and the politics of Jerusalem College.

Andrew Taylor writes convincing, complicated and interesting female characters as well as male ones – some of his previous novels have been written wholly or substantially from the viewpoint of their female characters. As well as Lady Anne, there is her much younger friend, Elinor Carbury, who is married to the Master of the College. She is bored and frustrated in her marriage, fed up with the conventions of the small, academic society she has to live in. She learns things which should shock her but instead of responding in a conventional way, in some cases she has a minor rebellion and just stores up more secrets. A lot of the other characters are rather unattractive, and in some cases they are downright nasty, but I found Elinor as engaging a character as John Holdsworth.

Although this is a crime novel, with Holdsworth as the reluctant investigator for hire who finds he must unravel a murder mystery, the best bits of this book are the setting and the characters.

Thank you to Penguin Michael Joseph for sending a copy to the Bookbag. We also have a review of The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor.

Another historical mystery set in the late 18th century is Instruments of Darkness by Imogen Robertson. Alison Bruce’s Cambridge Blue, Katy Darby's The Whores' Asylum and Emily Winslow’s The Whole World are also set in Cambridge. Set at the same time, but in Kent, we have The Body on the Doorstep by A J MacKenzie or The Blackstone Key by Rose Melikan, which is set in Suffolk.

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