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Continued excellence from one of our generations most gifted writers
on 2 April 2013
This has been my Easter reading: a chance to plunge once more into a time and place I know nothing about, in the company of one of the absolute masters of our genre - in fact, one of the masters of fiction, who takes the genre boundaries and bends them to breaking with a style and quiet intelligence that leave me always, wondering why I bother when there's this kind of greatness out there for people to buy.
The American Boy was his breakout and anyone who hasn't read his tale of the young Edgar Allen Poe's boyhood in England should put it top of their reading list. I was struck then by a sense of time and place that took me deeper, more powerfully into an era than anything else I'd ever read. There's a quality to the dialogue that feels so rawly authentic; the language, the pace, the careful courtesies that hide murder and mayhem.. nobody manages this era with this kind of skill.
The Scent of Death has that same powerful evocation. It's set in 1778 in New York, an enclave of the English Crown at the height of the Revolution; a place almost under siege, that depends on ships from England for provisions, while wrestling with the growing distinction between Americans and English. Into this comes Edward Savill, a Clerk from the American Office who nurtures hopes of preferment if he does his job well and whose slow realisation that he has, instead, been sidelined by his wife's cousin, a man who `does not like her more than half' (which is to say, he despises her) , who is his boss.
Because this is a historical thriller, Samuel is present when a body is fished out of the water as his boat comes in and another is found soon after his arrival. His dogged investigation of their deaths leads him deeper into the underlayers of this so-careful society with its so-careful conventions and its hovering-on-poverty existence that runs side by side with the genuinely destitute slaves who live in the ghetto by the water. There are moments of real danger, and a slowly revealed secret that blows everything else out of the water. And right at the end, in sails HMS Lydmouth, which will mean something only to those familiar with Andrew's series of the same name, but it's such a beautiful, understated finale to a beautiful, not-at-all understated book. 5* without question.