Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor: Set a potboiler in 1786 Cambridge, and it instantly has more credibility as literature than say, The DaVinci Code. Funny how that works, that the "historical" classification adds gravity. The Anatomy of Ghosts is a historical potboiler, and a good one, but it is not transcendent literature. It is, however, a fun read, and a pleasant way to while away a couple of hours. John Holdsworth, a washed-up bookseller, is nursing the loss of his son, who drowned in an accident, and of his wife, who committed suicide after losing significant amounts of money to a "medium" who claimed to be in contact with the son. He is in dire straits when Lady Anne summons him to perform two jobs for her: to inventory her late husband's book collection and to bring her son, Frank, a Cambridge student, back from the insanity that claimed him after he supposedly saw a ghost. She feels Holdsworth is uniquely qualified to go to Cambridge and debunk Frank's "haunting" because the angry widower Holdsworth had written a scathing debunking of the spirit world called The Anatomy of Ghosts.

When Holdsworth arrives at Cambridge, he finds a strange array of clues in Frank's room, and Frank's roommate is missing. To complicate matters, a secret society called the Holy Ghost Club doesn't want Holdsworth (or anyone else) to find out what happened at Frank's "initiation" into their society the night before he went mad, the night an orphan girl and the wife of the master both died. Is one of these women haunting Frank? Or is something else afoot? What really happened the night Sylvia Whichcote died? What sort of depravity does the Holy Ghost Club get up to? Why does Frank insist on quacking? Throw in all this intrigue with a completely unbelievable "romance" (that, far from being romantic, was creepy and rather off-putting), and you have all the ingredients for a bestseller. Though I saw for the most part where the plot was going, I kept turning the pages to find out who really killed Sylvia Whichcote, and for Taylor's rich, lovingly described 18th-century Cambridge campus, whose narrow lanes and lush quads are the most realistic part of the novel. Taylor has a gift for evoking a time and place in the past, using language, descriptive passages, and perfectly phrased details to bring his setting to life.

Fans of historical settings will love Taylor's masterful depiction of Cambridge, and lovers of potboilers will enjoy the suspense, twisting plot, and depraved young men that populate it. All in all, a fun read.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

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