Not the obvious ghost thriller but more a tale of hauntings that have more impact than bumps in the night. This sophisticated feel to the story gives credit to Andrew Taylor's new novel The Anatomy of Ghosts.
It is the sighting of Lady Whichcote, recently drowned in the grounds of Jerusalem College, Cambridge, which sends Frank Oldershaw into the asylum. Desperate to salvage her son's reputation, Lady Anne Oldershaw hires the services of John Holdsworth, author of a book discrediting the spirit world, to make sense of the matter. When Holdsworth discovers there is more to Sylvia Whichcote's death and that she is not the only young lady to die upon College Grounds, the mystery unravels. The realisation that it is not just the physical sighting of ghosts that can haunt the human soul is a lesson learned by both men.
Taylor creates the perfect backdrop to this haunting tale in the confined colleges of 18th Century Cambridge. As we follow the character's movements around the streets and waterways, a world of secrets, power struggles and the darker side of privileged life emerges. The language, the characters the setting all add to the mood of the novel making it not only an entertaining read but will grip you in suspense throughout.
Andrew Taylor is a very prolific author with over forty novels under his belt but he didn't come to my attention until 2003 with the publication of his first historical crime novel, The American Boy which was one of the Richard and Judy Book Club choices. I have been a fan ever since and equally enjoyed Bleeding Heart Square published in 2008.
In The Anatomy of Ghosts we are plunged into the murky, quirky world of Cambrige University in 1786, focussing particularly on the goings on at Jerusalem College (modelled, structurally anyway, on the actual Emmanuel College). Hedonism is the order of the day with the lavish excesses of the paying students contrasting sharply with the deprived, straitened circumstances of the scholarship pupils aka "sizars". John Holdsworth, recently widowed and down on his luck, has been employed by Lady Anne Oldershaw to recover and rehabilitate her son Frank who seems to have experienced a nervous breakdown following high jinks at the Holy Ghost Club. There are two suspicious deaths, rumours of ghosts, much political manoeuvring amongst lecturers and not much real studying going on in this academic environment!
In Taylor's previous historical novels, I was very impressed by his fluid storytelling and how he completely immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of the period. I'm pleased to report that these skills are equally at play here to the extent that even the less pleasant smells are vividly recreated, for example Tom Turdman, the night soil man who collects the excretions of the students. None of the characters are particularly likeable and one has the impression that everyone is strongly in favour of self-advancement by whatever means necessary. It is a predominantly male cast as befits the era and environment, with the exception of Elinor Carbury, much suffering wife of the Master but then again she doesn't entirely gain our sympathies given that she, like her male neighbours, is equally set on personal gain.
This is a real page turner of a novel, the 480 pages flew by in a couple of sittings and I really felt I had an insight, however brief, into the curious world of Cambridge in the late 18th century. It is reminiscent of Tom Sharpe's excellent Porterhouse Blue and although obviously in a much earlier setting, it confirms the unofficial power of the porters and "gyps" (college runners) - yet another example of profiteering and self-gain! Considering I've been experiencing a bit of reader's block recently it is yet further recommendation of this novel as it has pulled me out of the literary wilderness - highly recommended.
Mr Hollingsworth has suffered afew unfortunate events, namely the loss of both his son & wife as well as the loss of his livelihood. He accepts an invitation from a wealthy old lady to travel to Jerusalem College, Cambridge and investigate her son's sudden mental decline supposedly a result of his having seen seeing a ghost. Once there he meets a cast of unique characters all invariably acting in their own self-interest which only serves to complicate matters further.
I had hoped this book would be a good ghost story, complete with spooky goings-on and veiled women floating down old corridors but I was to be disappointed. Ultimately the book reads more like a `Whodunit' that ends with the slightly flat revelation of who the killer is. That said, the characters are well drawn and I was quite impressed by the dialogue, it can't be easy to recreate the rhetoric of 200 years ago but Taylor succeeds. I also loved the love story between Hollingsworth and the Master's wife and this is despite my normally loathing love stories. It was very deftly done with some truly delicate scenes between the two characters beautifully drawn.
Overall a decent work of fiction that's main highlight for me was the exhibition of the snobbery of young rich men and the struggle not to mention servitude of their poor fellow students.
I won't re-tell the story; others have done that, but I will say that I started this novel on Monday evening, had to be prised away from it that night and the next, and stayed up until 1 am to finish it on Wednesday. Like all of Andrew Taylor's work, this is a masterpiece of delightful, lyrical language; crisp, perfect dialogue that rings with the particular cadences of the time; an insight in the Cambridge collegiate system that is little short of breathtaking... and all wrapped up in a story that twists and turns with every other page. It feels like a ride down the Cam, but one far more gripping than any I have taken. It's gorgeous: Read it...
Andrew Taylor is clearly a master practitioner of historical/crime/mystery novels based on The Anatomy of Ghosts. Not often given to reading period fiction like this, I found myself drawn into the meticulously crafted feel of the times, and the langauge and narrative was of a very high standard and maintained throughout to keep the pages turning.
As other reviewers have commented, branding this as a ghost story is rather misleading, as the book is more a story of loss, grief, unspoken passions and underhand doings at the fictional Jerusalem College in Cambridge in the late eighteenth century. Right to the end the mood and mystery of the story is maintained beautifully, and only at the very end does it feel slightly unsatisfactory as a conclusion.
However, an engrossing page-turner crafted with intelligence and a lightness of touch that means the sense of period never overwhelms either the reader or the story. Will certainly be reading more from Andrew Taylor.
on 2 May 2011
After the drowning death of their son Georgie, John and Maria Holdsworth reacted in very different ways, Maria spent all of her time with a woman who claimed that she was in contact with Georgie's spirit, while John wrote `The Anatomy of Ghosts' - his account of why ghosts are delusion. When finances become constrained the Holdsworths need to move from the house in which they'd lived with their son. Maria refuses, and the next day she too is found dead in the Thames.
John Holdsworth is bewildered and broke, and haunted by his own ghosts. Lady Anne Oldershaw, familiar with his book, offers him employment. While part of the employment relates to organizing her late husband's library, she also believes that he may be able to help her son Frank. Frank, a student at Jerusalem College in Cambridge seems to have lost his mind. Frank believes that he has seen the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote, a friend's wife, and Lady Anne wants John Holdsworth to demonstrate to Frank that it was either a delusion or a hoax. She believes that this will restore Frank's sanity.
Cambridge, in 1786, is a claustrophobic place, and Jerusalem College has its own secrets. Frank was being initiated into Jerusalem's hellfire society, the Holy Ghost Club as the novel opens and the mystery surrounding this club makes it difficult for John Holdsworth to find out what really happened. Finding out how and why Sylvia Whichcote drowned leads John Holdsworth on an interesting, and dramatic, journey of discovery. Few people are who they seem to be, and the class structure - so painstakingly drawn - seems to be a barrier to discovering the truth. But John Holdsworth is nothing if not persistent and if he can't unravel the truth about the death of Sylvia Whichcote, perhaps he needs to reconsider the possible existence of ghosts.
I enjoyed this novel: the fact that John Holdsworth is an outsider to Cambridge meant that we learned about the arcana and inner workings of eighteenth century English university life as he did. It may slow the pace of the story down a little, but it certainly enriches it.
`I am not the only one who sees ghosts.'
I thought this was an outstandingly good book. Rather to my shame I hadn't come across Andrew Taylor before and picked this up because it was recommended on Radio 4 as one of the best crime novels of 2010. They were right, and I will certainly be reading more of Andrew Taylor's books.
The plot has been well summarised in other reviews here so I won't go into it again, but it is involving, exciting and very well paced. I found that for at least the last couple of hundred pages I was completely gripped and very grumpy about anything which interrupted my reading. The characters are well drawn and I found the whole premise of the book interesting and psychologically perceptive. Taylor's writing is really good - unaffected, literate and a pleasure to read. He conjures the late 18th Century period excellently with the use of very authentic dialogue and modern narration with the occasional period phrase - "the carriage slowed to a footpace," for example - which is very effective. The writing reminded me a little of Patrick O'Brian, which is very high praise indeed.
In short, this is a beautifully written, convincingly set and gripping crime novel which is far more than just a thriller. It's a real find for me and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
on 8 December 2010
Andrew Taylor is a very talented writer, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in this book - where he sets us down in late C18 London and Cambridge and makes the strange world we are in seem natural - without labouring the historical details as so many historical novelists do. In some ways the book is an homage to the Woman in White - the central character, Holdsworth, was very reminiscent to me of Hartwright and aside from the ghostly story there is a major theme which revolves around a woman in white. The issue of madness, which pervades the book, is also an echo of that classic chiller.
But the book is a fascinating thriller on its own merits - indeed while it sent me back to "The Woman in White" I have to say I much prefer this, which is pretty high praise! The style of writing is (as always with Taylor) clear, accomplished and engaging. I was annoyed every time I had to put it down, and found the story was thoroughly well sustained - no bits which dragged or missed at all. A really excellent book.
The Anatomy of Ghosts is an entertaining historical mystery set in and around Cambridge University in the late 18th century. I should read historical mysteries more often because I almost always enjoy them - and this one was no exception.
When London bookseller John Holdsworth's son is drowned in a tragic accident, his wife insists that their little boy is communicating with them from the spirit world. Holdsworth doesn't agree and is so disgusted by his wife's claims that he decides to write a book in which he attempts to prove that ghosts don't exist. The title of Holdworth's book is The Anatomy of Ghosts and it soon brings him to the attention of Lady Anne Oldershaw. Her son, Frank, has suffered a nervous breakdown after apparently seeing the ghost of a friend's wife, Mrs Whichcote, at Jerusalem College, Cambridge. Holdsworth agrees to help Frank - and at the same time he begins to uncover the truth behind what really happened to Mrs Whichcote.
This is the first book I've read by Andrew Taylor and I really liked his writing style - it's detailed yet flows nicely and is easy to read. Some might find the book too slow to begin with, but it does pick up pace. Something that really impressed me about Taylor's writing was the way he managed to bring his settings so vibrantly to life. Whether he was describing John Holdsworth pushing his barrow of old books through the bustling streets of 18th century London or a couple of students in their caps and gowns strolling through the quiet courtyards and gardens of Cambridge, the sounds, sights and even the smells are incredibly vivid. As a historical novel, though, I think it would have benefited from a few points of reference to anchor the story in the 1700s, as it did at times feel more like the Victorian period to me.
The characters, unfortunately, were not the most likeable of people. In fact, I didn't like any of them, not even Holdsworth, but it didn't matter too much - the strength of this book was definitely its plot rather than its characters. And I've been left intrigued about what was actually in John Holdsworth's book, The Anatomy of Ghosts. It would have been a nice addition to the story if we could have read a few excerpts!
on 10 February 2011
Crime writer Andrew Taylor takes us to 1786 England in this tale. Bookseller John Holdsworth has fallen on hard times: his son has drowned; his wife has spent all their money on a fake medium who claimed to be in contact with the son and then, facing a move from their home and, she feels, the dead son, has drowned herself; his business is gone and he finds himself selling low quality used books from a peddler's cart and about to take up living in a shed. In between the time of his son's death and his wife's, he wrote a book called `The Anatomy of Ghosts' in which he puts forth his strong opinion that ghosts do not exist. It is this book that, while barely clearing its costs of publishing, will provide his change of fortune, when Lady Oldershaw hires him for a two part job.
Lady Oldershaw's son, Frank, a student at Jerusalem College in Cambridge, has been committed to a mental hospital after seeing a ghost. Lady Oldershaw does not believe there was ghost, and wishes the event looked into by Holdsworth under the guise of assessing the state of the library at Jerusalem, as she is considering donating her late husband's library to them.
Once at Jerusalem, Holdsworth finds that Frank's mental state is connected to the death by drowning of the wife of one of Frank's colleagues; a secret society; and the politics and backstabbing that run through any place of higher learning. Unraveling the mystery of what Frank saw and what was really taking place the night of the drowning leads Holdsworth to muse on how one really can be haunted, when there are in fact no ghosts. This is not a book of the supernatural, but of crimes, both of passion and of property, and of attachments, both to the living and the dead.