Andrew Taylor is far the best crime writer around (Far better than any Booker prize winner that I have ever read.) Why does his publisher not put him forward? In his latest novel, The Anatomy of Ghosts, we are taken back to Cambridge 1786, into Jerusalem College. The research is extensive, but with Mr Taylor there is none of the ‘data dump’ oh so prevalent among so-called historical writers nowadays.
From Frank Holdsworth, the main protagonist, to Tom Turdman, who empties the night soil man who empties the student’s privies, to Elinor Carbury married to the Master of the College. The characters are drawn with a light touch and they are, for the most part, unpleasant but this makes them all the more human, and as a consequence believable.
We see hear and smell Cambridge and Jerusalem college in 1786. This is a place where the advantaged treat their servants and the scholars atrociously. The tutors seem to be more interested in the politics of the college, eating and self interest rather than with teaching and will resort to all kinds of dishonest practises to get their own way. Amidst the machinations of the fellows at Jerusalem College there are two deaths and ghosts, real or imagined? There is a secret society called the Holy Ghost Club, which in reality is mostly a drinking club with a vicious initiation ritual, the club is run by the corrupt Mr Whichcote. The ‘ghost’ is that of Sylvia Whichcote who drowned in the college pond.
This novel is so subtle that I do not want to give any of the plot away. John Holdsworth’s son drowned, his wife turned to a dubious medium. She then drowned herself at the same spot as her son in the Thames. In consequence he wrote a pamphlet entitled The Anatomy of Ghosts
, an account of why ghosts are delusions. He is employed by Lady Anne Oldershaw to bring her son home. Frank is in an asylum after having a breakdown of some kind following a meeting of the Holy Ghost Club and seeing the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote. Holdsworth interviews the residents of the college and those in the town who have connections with the university. Part of the novel is from Holdsworth’s viewpoint, written in third person. Cleverly we are given insights though the other characters and Holdsworth must ‘catch up’ with us. All this adds up to a real page-turner.