on 18 December 2010
Frank Oldershaw is a clever, handsome young man from a wealthy family, who is a member of Cambridge's scholarly elite with an assured future and few cares in the world. Frank, however, has had a traumatic experience, he has seen a ghost and is currently being treated in an institution for the insane. Frank's caring and concerned mother, Lady Anne, wants to get to the bottom of her son's problems and see him rehabilitated, and she employs John Holdsworth as her agent to achieve that. John has tragically lost his wife and son in successive accidents and is struggling to cope, but he has published a work, The Anatomy of Ghosts, exposing the fraud of the supposed world of the returning dead and it is that which persuades Lady Anne that he is the right man for this delicate task.
Andrew Taylor pitches us into the Hogarthian world of Cambridge University in 1786, where patronidge and preferment are the political diversions of the college principals and the undergraduates eschew study for the pleasures of alcohol, sex and gambling. So what has changed? Well, quite a lot because the headlines sound tha same but life on the ground in the eighteenth century was pretty unsavoury by today's standards. Those wealthy enough portrayed a facade of powdered wigs, fine clothes, lavish surroundings and time on their hands; those who could not lived in abject circumstances, servicing the rich and experiencing their cruelty. What better illustration than that of the night soil man, scraping a living off the floor of the university's privies. It is a world of farts and smells, dirt and disease, excess and cruelty, at least as Taylor interprets it, and he sets it all before us in such matter-of-fact prose that it shocks all the more for that.
The story line is solid and Taylor uses this skillfully to construct a gripping tale of intrigue and investigation. Having attached ourselves to John Holdsworth, we travel with him to Cambridge where we enter Jerusalem College. As he gets to know the characters and relationships we begin to understand how this claustrophobic world ticks, what the social regime is who is beholden to whom. Both place and people are expertly and subtley brought to life, indeed, the location is described so well that we can almost find our own way through the streets and around the college campus.
There is no padding here and the tension builds steadily as the full circumstances of what has happened, is happening, emerges from Holdsworth's investigations and the eventual outcome, whilst anticipated in part, is cleverly devised and springs a few surprises. It is not a happy book and I did not particularly like any of the characters. Holdsworth seems an upright chap and there are others of moral character, but the rest are out for themsleves, plain charlatans some. This reinforces the Hogarth view that defies anyone to honestly say they are really having a good time, honestly being the key word. I'm not sure that debunking ghost stories was quite as rife in 1786 as it became in the late Victorian era, due in large part, no doubt, to the concept of limbo figuring in the religious interpretation of the time, those poor unresolved souls having nowhere to go come back to our world and scare the pants off us.
If this is your first Andrew Taylor, as it was mine, you may, like me, be reaching for more.
on 18 July 2012
I see from some other reviews a few readers believed this to be a ghost story. I can see why. The title, the spectral figure on the front and a clip from a review printed on the back cover describing it as 'creepy' would also have convinced me had my wife not read it first and told me is wasn't. It isn't, in case there remains any doubt!
What it is, is a little bundle of mysteries set in an 18 century Cambridge university college. A couple of deaths, a haunting, a case of madness, some low down caddish behaviour, local politics and more sexual tension than could be found at a teenage house party. The job of unravelling it all falls to the grim and bereaving figure of Mr Hollingsworth. A widower and book expert engaged by a lady of quality to save her son from madness.
Well that's enough of the plot to get your juices going whilst hopefully giving nothing away.
Was it any good? Yes it was! It was a little monopaced but was nevertheless very hard to put down. The mystery elements were just that and kept my guessing till the last few pages. The villians were nicely loathable and the individual player's all fully formed and believable. It's essentially a historical 'who dunnit' very much in vogue now and this captures the historical atmosphere as well as providing a satisfying set of mysteries.
A good book well worth a read.
on 7 September 2013
If you enjoy stories driven by character development and murder mysteries you'll probably enjoy this. Each character is exquisitely human. As their lives unfold the characters are forced to face the consequences of their choices (or the consequences of being caught up in the consequences of other people's choices). I particularly liked the main hero John Holdsworth. I can only hope the author will one day feel inspired to continue unfolding his fate in another story. I'd like to think I didn't see the ending coming because of the late hour, but no...I think the author just did a brilliant job unfolding the story creating possibilities.
The book does bounce between character view points without much warning. That did occasionally confuse me (as did needing to remember quite a few names), but small picky irritants aside it's a beautifully written story that addresses the different kinds of ghosts that haunt us (as well as being a murder mystery). I highly recommend it.
This was a book that offered a great deal but I don't think it quite came up to scratch. The story is set in 18th century Cambridge at Jerusalem College. The base for the story is that a wealthy young student has "gone mad" after seeing a ghost & John Holdsworth has been employed to prove that there was no ghost.
The setting for the story is excellent. Andrew Taylor is a skilled writer & describes the setting in this period of history quite wonderfully. I could easily imagine the sights & smells that he was describing - particularly the night-soil man!I got a good impression of the atmosphere in the college & the way that it was run; the heirarchy, the favourtism & nepotism. Though I did get a little confused about the levels of student but that was quite immaterial. The class system came through well in both the college & the "real" world. The patronage of wealthy benefactors for both the college & individuals could be felt in the story without being explained in unnecessary detail.
The characters in the book were reasonably well defined though none had very strong personalities. Holdsworth was not as strong a character as I would expect from the main character in a book. He was slightly disturbed by the dreams of his wife & son but this didn't really come across to me as much as I think the author intended. The main characters in the college - Richardson & Carbery had the makings of good personalities but I felt they fell slightly short.
The actual story was good as far as it went. The feeling of a building up of suspense just didn't work for me. I didn't get the feeling that the whole book was building up to some big revelation. I also didn't get the feeling of apprehension when things happened to the characters. I just hadn't really got into this book. I had no problem putting this book down. It wasn't a book that I felt the need to try to read at every opportunity as some others are. I ambled along through the story but there was no sense of urgency to see what happened next. In one way it was a good thing that I wasn't rushing to discover the ending as I felt it was a bit of "a damp squib". There was no great revelation or dynamic ending. Although the loose ends had been tied up & the original question solved there was no great conclusion to this book. I was slightly disappointed really.
I must say that there are a couple of great small scenes in this book. You could almost say that they are "one liners". These did make me smile.
All in all it was a well written book with a good story but, for me, it just didn't go beyond that. It wasn't special. Having read reviews of this book elsewhere, there are people who did get the feeling of suspense & flow but I didn't. Maybe you will....
on 14 March 2012
1786, Jerusalem College Cambridge.
The ghost of Sylvia Whichcote is rumoured to be haunting Jerusalem since disturbed fellow-commoner, Frank Oldershaw, claims to have seen the dead woman prowling the grounds.
Desperate to salvage her son's reputation, Lady Anne Oldershaw employs John Holdsworth, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts - a stinging account of why ghosts are mere delusion - to investigate. But his arrival in Cambridge disrupts an uneasy status quo as he glimpses a world of privilege and abuse, where the sinister Holy Ghost Club governs life at Jerusalem more effectively than the Master, Dr Carbury, ever could.
And when Holdsworth finds himself haunted - not only by the ghost of his dead wife, Maria, but also Elinor, the very-much-alive Master's wife - his fate is sealed. He must find Sylvia's murderer or the hauntings will continue. And not one of them will leave the claustrophobic confines of Jerusalem unchanged.
I love Andrew Taylor's writing - entertaining but elegant and sophisticated with stunning storytelling and an exquisite atmospheric sense of place and this novel has both in good measure.
The reader is plunged into the Hogarthian setting of Cambridge University in 1786 with decadent shenanigan's of wealthy students; madness; secrets; scandals and the whisper of a ghost haunting the grounds make this a perfect winter's evening read.
on 16 September 2011
I bought this book hoping that it would be a ghost story. I was disappointed. However, it is an excellent whodunit. Set in the last quarter of the 18th century in London and Cambridge and you feel that you are there - the characters are very real (and on the whole not very nice), the style and language is of the time (and not it a twee way), and the sights, sounds and smells (oh the smells) are very vivid - not many books have a Tom Turdman - but he was once an essential part of life! I'll look out for more books by Andrew Taylor.
on 2 October 2010
At the heart of London lie the colleges: Oxford and Cambridge, the good old boys of education. At the heart of Cambridge, author Andrew Taylor has it, lies Jerusalem College, a wholly invented and alarmingly eccentric campus which nevertheless has the look and the smell and the feel - the feel most of all - of the real thing. "The eighteenth century was not a glorious period for English universities," Taylor observes. "Individual colleges followed their idiosyncratic paths which were to guide them apart from their own statutes, which were at least two centuries out of date, as were the syllabuses that the universities prescribed for their students to study." Idiosyncratic is something of an underestimation of the mysteries that lie at the heart of Jerusalem, however, foremost among them The Holy Ghost club, an exclusive organisation of masters and students who gather together every so often to indulge their darker impulses. You know: drinking, gambling, going toilet on the floor and deflowering virgins... the usual sort of thing.
It's not entirely surprising, then, when of a morning Tom Turdman, Jerusalem's night-soil man, comes across the bloated corpse of Sylvia Whichcote in the Long Pond. Her death drives fellow-commoner Frank Oldershaw to madness: he swears blind he's seen her ghost - before he's locked away in the campus asylum, that is. Perturbed, Frank's mother Lady Anne enlists one John Holdsworth, sometime author of a bitter rebuttal of hauntings, now bereaved of his late wife and child and fallen on hard times, to travel to Jerusalem and put an end to the ominous mystery of Sylvia Whichcote's ghost.
Holdsworth is the perfect protagonist: an outsider rather than an academic, he represents our way in to the stifling and seemingly proper environs of the college. As he comes to grasp Jerusalem's labyrinthine inner workings, the insidious shuffling and muttering of those with much to gain and everything to lose in this isolated exemplar of late 18th century English society, so too do we. Holdsworth is, too, a damaged man. He has been stricken of everything that was of worth to him: his lifelong love, his son, his bookselling enterprise. He comes to the college with baggage enough to rival any of those Holy Ghost club members presumably complicit in Sylvia Whichcote's death, and The Anatomy of Ghosts is as much about Holdsworth's grief as it is his exponential unraveling of the so-called haunting which plagues Jerusalem's reputation. Having "failed to save his son," he becomes obsessed with restoring young Frank Oldershaw to his senses; if he can only "save this living boy in front of him... would it be something to set against Georgie's death?" he wonders.
To call The Anatomy of Ghosts a ghost story is to miss the point, I'm afraid. It is a narrative haunted, certainly, but by loss rather than any paranormal entity. True to the juxtaposition of the scientific and the supernatural in its title, Holdsworth's singular interest in the spectral presence supposedly roaming the college campus is in the rational explanation he believes underlies it as opposed to the promise of life after death its actual fact would entail. The Anatomy of Ghosts would be as well entitled The Anatomy of Murders, for Taylor's text is a crime fiction above all else.
As a ghost story, then, it runs the risk of underwhelming - though not for any failing on the author's part; as it is, which is to say a period crime piece bearing the supernatural as a device rather a purpose unto itself, The Anatomy of Ghosts is a winning specimen. Near enough, come to that, the equal of The American Boy, shy only the devilishly satisfying reveal of Andrew Taylor's last great shakes. Authentic without being banal in the mode of so much historical fiction, tense and suspenseful from end to end, evocative of an atmosphere at once subdued and rife with bitter undercurrents to rival those Sarah Waters has made her bread and butter, assiduously intelligent without ever falling to the showy or the self-indulgent, The Anatomy of Ghosts is masterful - if not, perhaps, in the ways you might expect.
on 2 April 2012
This was indeed more of an 18th century detective novel than a ghost story, but none the worse for that! I loved it! It was, as other reviewers have said, so well written that you could almost imagine you were actually there, & the more I read, the more I was completely gripped by the whole concept. I rooted for Mr Holdsworth, I hissed at the baddy & I puzzled myself silly wondering what had really happened & where it was all going. The final revelation I have to say, as with so many good stories, was however a very slight let down. I felt that after the careful building of the characters, who were so real and believable, the wrong person 'dunnit', & the ensuing loose ends were somewhat unsatisfying, causing me to imagine an alternative version of my own which I much preferred. But the pleasure of the hours spent reading & wondering & enjoying were enough in this case to outweigh that, and at least it had a proper ending even if it wasn't the one I wanted. Hoorah! Good day to you, sirs! I'm off to put on my powdered wig & look for more Andrew Taylor novels.
Its 1786, and Jerusalem College, Cambridge is experiencing some troubled times - a ghost has been prowling the grounds and a couple of drownings have occurred. In addition, a wealthy under-graduate, Frank Oldershaw, has gone mad and has been committed to a private mental clinic (where the treatment seems to be to harshly punish the patients for their insanity).
Frank's mother, Lady Anne employs John Holdsworth, the author of a tract against the supernatural to investigate and the journey through the intrigues and mysteries of the university town commence.
Andrew Taylor has created a believable impression of life in 18th century Cambridge. The colleges are a closed community with strict hierarchies of professors and students, with the good old English class system being the usual dividing factor. College life revolves around its very own hellfire club, the Holy Ghost Club, which specialises in initiating young men into the pleasures and vices of gentlemanly life.
When Holdsworth arrives in the college to carry out his investigations, he finds that recent meeting of the Holy Ghost Club have gone badly wrong and Lady Anne's son Frank's exile to the asylum is closely linked to recent goings on. Holdsworth brings the power of his independence to the investigation. He has his own nightmares to deal with - not least the deaths of his wife and child through drowning. His business has failed and it is only because of the success of his tract against ghosts that this lucrative commission has come his way.
He has a modern scepticism about all things supernatural, and this enables him to bring a rational and calm mind to the more histrionic claims of some of those involved. Perhaps the "ghost" is a product of guilty consciences and attempts to cover up some very shady dealings?
The book moves along beautifully from one mystery to another. Taylor shows his skills by allowing his story to develop gradually, while controlling the flow of revelations. We read of college intrigues, illicit relationships and hidden vices, the more serious passages being lightened by a cast of comic characters such as Tom Turdman the night-soil man, the details of whose job are too disgusting to describe here. It is a long and convoluted journey to a very satisfactory ending, and it is easy to see how Andrew Taylor has won so many awards for his previous novels. Doubtless Anatomy of Ghosts will soon provide him with more.
on 1 February 2011
Stayed up late last night to finish this compelling book. Andrew Taylor has the skill to transport the reader back to another place in another time and make it feel like you are living and breathing it yourself. I enjoyed this as much as recent Ken Follet, C j Sansom and Robert Harris books. Gripping stuff.