Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

I loved The Anatomy of Ghosts and wonder why I haven’t been reading all of Andrew Taylor’s books. I certainly intend to make up for what I’ve been missing.

The Anatomy of Ghosts takes place at eighteenth century (1786) Cambridge College and revolves around bookseller and bookbinder John Holdsworth. John is a tragic figure. After his small son, Georgie, drowns in the Thames, John cannot forgive himself for failing to save the boy, and his wife, Maria, also overcome with grief, spends all her time with a so-called psychic who claims to be able to contact Georgie’s spirit. This angers the grief-stricken John, but he doesn’t take his anger out on poor Maria. Instead, he pores it into the writing of a book denouncing the spirit world, a book known as “The Anatomy of Ghosts.”

Though the book is somewhat of a success, John Holdsworth cannot stem the downward spiral of his life. When Holdsworth informs his wife that the two must move due to finances and a series of business reversals, Maria refuses to leave the house where she and John lived with Georgie, and the next morning, she, too, is found dead in the Thames.

Maria’s death is declared an accident, and John, now broken and without funds and haunted by his own ghosts, is forced to sell his home and what little remains of his business. He has no idea where he’ll go or what he’ll do next. Enter Lady Anne Oldershaw.

Lady Anne Oldershaw has come to know of John Holdsworth through his book, the above-mentioned “The Anatomy of Ghosts.” Her beloved son, Frank, a student at the fictional Jerusalem College in Cambridge, has lost his wits after claiming to have seen the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote, a friend’s wife, one misty night, and sure enough, Sylvia Whichcote did drown that very night in the College’s Long Pond. Lady Anne believes that if the author of “The Anatomy of Ghosts” can convince her son that ghosts do not, in actuality, exist, and that the young man must have been the victim of a prank of some kind instead, Frank’s sanity can be restored. And, when John isn’t busy restoring Frank’s sanity, Lady Anne would like for him to organize her late husband’s library.

Lady Anne loves her son, and she may think him a nice young man, but the reader already knows different, for the reader has met Frank in Chapter One of this mystery, and knows that Frank Oldershaw is a member of Jerusalem College’s Holy Ghost Club, a club whose members are dedicated to drunkenness and debauchery, and none more so than Frank. But one can’t blame a mother for loving her son and wanting the best for him. I liked Lady Anne. Like all of Andrew Taylor’s characters, she’s complex and complicated and not wholly reliable.

At this point in his life, John Holdsworth has no other option but to accept Lady Anne’s offer, and off he goes to the corrupt and crumbling halls of Jerusalem College, hoping to disprove the existence of ghosts to Frank Oldershaw.

I loved the atmosphere Andrew Taylor created at Jerusalem College. It’s not only corrupt and crumbling, it’s claustrophobic and also rather gothic, with its swirling mists, dense fogs, and dark buildings that thrust their spires into skies leaden with dark clouds and loom ominously over all who stand below. I thought Taylor did an especially good job of bringing the asylum where Frank is being held to life. It made me squeamish and sometimes uneasy just reading about it, and though I love books, they don’t usually evoke a physical response in me. The atmosphere is the kind of atmosphere Sarah Waters evokes so well and has made a part of her signature style. I had thought that perhaps it was hers and hers alone, though it should come as no surprise to those familiar with his work that Andrew Taylor can conjure up this forbidding type of atmosphere, too, and conjure it well. History gave him ample material to work with, and Taylor certainly mined it well. The eighteenth century, Taylor writes, was not the most illustrious time for English universities:

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.

Most of the time, I felt as though I were reading an “old” book, one unearthed from the library of some Georgian manor house down in Kent or Somerset, rather than a modern mystery, written by a living author. The atmosphere was that good, that palpable, and that claustrophobic.

Taylor is also very skillful at educating his readers without his readers being aware that they are being educated. (And that’s the best way to educate some people.) I learned what a “night-soil” man was (and learned it would never be one of my career options), what a “gyp” was, and much about the unfair class divisions that existed at Cambridge during the eighteenth century. And speaking of “gyps,” I really liked the sly and wily Mulgrave, who refused to kowtow to those who considered themselves his “betters” simply because they had more money than he.

As Holdsworth seeks to “cure” Frank Oldershaw and convince the young man that whatever he saw, it couldn’t have been a ghost, he also comes to realize that Sylvia Whichcote’s death by drowning couldn’t possibly have been “self-murder” as the coroner concluded, nor could it have been an accident. But who could have killed her? John comes to the conclusion that it had to have been someone within Jerusalem College, itself. The gate to Jerusalem Lane was locked. The college was locked. The Master’s Lodge and its garden, which are situated within the College gates, were locked. The gate over the bridge was locked. If John Holdsworth can’t find Sylvia Whichcote’s murderer, then perhaps John Holdsworth needs to reassess his feeling about the existence of ghosts.

Taylor not only does a wonderful job with atmosphere in The Anatomy of Ghosts, he is very skillful when it comes to creating believable characters and choosing a narrator. (Most of the characters in this book are men; the one female character who stands out is Elinor Carbury, the long-suffering wife of the Master, and she isn't wholly likable since her motives are less than pure.) Like him or not, John Holdsworth was nothing less than the perfect narrator. As an outsider, he knows as little about the College as the reader does. Just as Holdsworth learns about the secret societies, the mysteries, and the inner workings of eighteenth century English university life, so, too, do we. And, as John obsesses about “curing” Frank Oldershaw, he, himself, becomes obsessed and the victim of more than one “haunting” by persons both living and dead.

So, is The Anatomy of Ghosts really a ghost story? In the truest sense of the word, yes, I think it is, though it doesn’t revolve around paranormal activity. It does, however, revolve around hauntings. In fact, the narrative is fairly drenched in hauntings, however those readers coming to this book expecting to find a “traditional” ghost story will be disappointed, even though the book is elegantly and stylishly written, for The Anatomy of Ghosts is more murder mystery than anything else, and if the reader approaches it as such, he or she is sure to find an enjoyable and unforgettable read. In fact, readers who’ve been lucky enough to read one of Taylor’s previous books, The American Boy, might begin comparing The Anatomy of Ghosts to that masterpiece of mystery and suspense, and to their delight, find that The Anatomy of Ghosts doesn’t come up wanting.

A few people have told me they found this book a bit slow. I didn’t. Yes, the period detail and the formal style of writing, so befitting a story set in the eighteenth century, does slow down the pace of the book a bit, but even in the novel’s slowest passages, Taylor is an author who knows how to build suspense and layer on intensity. And just when the reader thinks he/she has it all figured out, Taylor adds yet another twist.

The Anatomy of Ghosts is a book to read and savor, and then read again.


Recommended: Lovers of mysteries and especially historical mysteries can’t go wrong with this book. And, if you liked this book, you might also like Taylor’s novel, The American Boy.

Books Similar to This One: The Little Friend by Sarah Waters, Angelica by Arthur Phillips, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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