Review – The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

Book details


Michael Joseph Ltd


Hardback – 480 pages

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.

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  1. Iris says:

    This sounds good. I’d like to read about the Cambridge environment in any time period, I think.

  2. Jenny says:

    Whoa. A book set at Cambridge? I thought all books set at British universities were set at Oxford and literature just didn’t know about Cambridge. I know I need to look this one up now! :p

  3. admin says:

    Jenny, Porterhouse Blue is another great read set in Cambridge.

  4. Luci says:

    The American Boy wasn’t Andrew Taylor’s first historical crime novel, just the first to have a pre-20th century setting, but the Lydmouth series is historical crime, as is The Office of the Dead, all set in the 1950s but published in the 1990s/2000s.

  5. admin says:

    Apologies, Luci. I was relying on Andrew Taylor’s own classification on his website here where he lists 3 historical novels. I think categorisation can be rather inflexible at times.

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