Thursday, March 17, 2011

An eighteenth-century murder mystery, anyone?

Who can resist a ghost story set in eighteenth-century Cambridge, England? Well, I certainly can’t.

The Anatomy of Ghosts

Andrew Taylor’s The Anatomy of Ghosts (432 pages, Hyperion, $24..99) is set is 1786 and tells the story of a bankrupt bookseller who has lost both his son and his wife in the River Thames, next to which they were living in London. John Holdsworth is bereft but he also feels guilty. After his son’s death, his wife visited a medium who persuaded her that her son was near and that he was watching from the beyond. This angered John, who went so far as to write a book about the fallacy of belief in ghosts, The Anatomy of Ghosts of the title; and his wife’s belief drove him so crazy that he was driven to strike her. After that even she disappears, and when her body is discovered, it seems that she may have committed suicide.

With this background, Holdsworth finds a job that carries him to Cambridge. Lady Anne Oldershaw asks him to go to Cambridge to work with her son, who has been committed for his own wild expression of his belief in ghosts. Her son Frank has been a student, in good standing, at Jerusalem College, but suddenly everyone in Cambridge is worried about him. Lady Carbury, the wife of the ailing head of the college, has come to help Lady Oldershaw plead her case; and this Cambridge woman, whose first name is Elinor, finds herself strangely attracted to the bookseller. The feeling is mutual.

The Cambridge scenes are certainly harrowing. The students seem to be drawn into a private club, run by a local aristocrat, in which local girls are victimized and the students are caught up in a vicious activity that haunts them throughout their lives. Holdsworth finds himself in the center of this crisis. Frank Oldershaw’s mania is the direct result of a mysterious night in which two women have died.

As readers, we get peeps into the corrupt world next to which the college seems like a mere excuse. Gradually, though, the college’s own corruption becomes an important feature of Holdsworth’s discoveries.

The eighteenth-century context is wonderfully rendered, and what is especially interesting is how poor Frank Olderwshaw is handled in the asylum to which he has been sent. Luckily, Holdershaw manages to get him out of the asylum and to work with him on his own. This is an interesting sequence, and Frank’s gradual emergence into a coherent world of thought and speech is truly fascinating. Especially fascinating is his emergence as a silly undergraduate after all.

Taylor does a good job with the smoldering romance between Holdworth and Lady Carbury, whose husband is dying and whose desires are more than a little frustrated. The two barely spend any time together, but they are both so present in each other’s thoughts that they are hardly ever apart.

The ending is surprising and well-crafted, and the wealth of detail with which Taylor creates this eighteenth-century world is truly engaging. I hope he writes another eighteenth-century mystery soon.

Andrew Taylor

Get a copy of The Anatomy of Ghosts at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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