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Andrew Taylor – The Anatomy of Ghosts

January 17, 2011

2. The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor (2011)

Length: 484 pages

Genre: Historical Mystery

Started: 02 January 2011
Finished: 06 January 2011

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I like mysteries best when they’re historical, and the premise of this one (secret societies! murder! ghosts! Cambridge!) sounded like fun.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 17 November 2010.

A ghost, a madman,
and secret societies:
quite mysterious.

Summary: It’s 1786, and John Holdsworth has lost everything: his son to drowning, his wife to grief, and his home and bookshop to financial difficulties. So he’s in the direst of straits when he’s approached by an agent of Lady Anne Oldershaw with an unusual commission. Lady Anne’s only son, Frank, had been a student at Cambridge University, but is now committed to a madhouse after claiming to have seen a ghost – the wife of a colleague that had died in mysterious circumstances just a few months previously. Holdsworth’s task is to prove that there was no ghost, and thus restore Frank to sanity, but the more he investigates, the more he finds himself caught up in a strange world: a world of secret societies, collegiate rivalries, sinister deeds, and hidden loyalties.

Review: Of all the things that The Anatomy of Ghosts promises to be – a historical literary mystery/thriller, with a ghost-ridden, creepy atmosphere, and a strong appeal to bibliophiles – it really only successfully delivers on one. It is, without a doubt, wonderfully historical. Taylor does a very nice job evoking the atmosphere of 1780s Cambridge, with scholars in academic robes striding across stone courtyards and around formal gardens, and doing dark deeds by flickering candlelight.

This book was also very mysterious (although I wouldn’t call it a thriller; the main character was never really in any danger from his investigations). There are clues doled out at a good pace, and the solutions to the mystery followed logically enough from the information provided to the reader. However, I had one big problem with the ending: while all the mysteries were solved, it felt like very little was actually resolved. It leaves its main characters standing still almost immediately after all of the solutions are revealed, as if someone shouted “The butler did it!” and then the curtains promptly dropped closed, Fin, roll credits. I’m not suggesting that I need to see every loose end tied up in a happy little bow, but another chapter or two showing some of the fallout from the rather shocking revelations, not to mention dealing with some of the plot threads that weren’t directly involved in the mystery, would have been much appreciated.

I was also disappointed that it wasn’t creepier. It says ghosts right in the title, there’s a secret society and murder most foul and lots of skulking about to be done, but I was never really creeped out, and the ghosts that Holdsworth actually deals with are all of the symbolic rather than the paranormal variety. Similarly, the bookish angle felt like pandering to the bibliophiles in the audience, since it did not matter to the plot at all. The initial excuse for Lady Oldershaw contacting Holdsworth – to have him catalog her late husband’s library for donation to the college – is dropped almost immediately and only reappears in a few vague references later on. Another thing promised by the book covers that wasn’t satisfactorily delivered.

While this book had its share of disappointments, it had a number of bright spots, too. As I mentioned, I loved the historical details, and Taylor did a nice job of maintaining a large cast of interesting characters. His prose style is also very smooth and readable, with some nice literary turns. I just wish that the ending had been plotted a little better, and that the book as a whole had been better about fulfilling the promises of its potential. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book will appeal most to fans of historical mysteries that prefer their books a little more somber and meditative. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, satisfying, collegiate historical thriller, though, I’d recommend S. J. Parris’s Heresy instead.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Books and Movies, Cornflower Books, Killin’ Time Reading, Lovely Treez Reads, On My Bookshelf
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First Line: She was not alone.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 22: “The man looked respectable – an apothecary perhaps; something in the professional way – but then so had the fellow the previous week, a man he had taken for a clergyman up from the country, who had slipped a duodecimo Longinus into his pocket while Holdsworth’s attention had been distracted by another customer.” – A book having pages of 6.5 to 7.5 inches high by approximately 4.5 inches wide.
    .
  • p. 33: “Her face was coated very thickly with ceruse, so perhaps the skin beneath had been scarred by the smallpox; for that was an evil that neither wealth nor breeding could guard against.” – a pigment composed of white lead.
    .
  • p. 53: “As a rule, Susan was inclined to be sulky but, a few months earlier, Elinor had given her an unwanted cloak and the maid would revert to being all smiles and sycophancy when she was hoping for another gift. To escape this proleptic gratitude, Elinor fled to the long room with the bishop’s books.” – the use of a descriptive word in anticipation of its becoming applicable.
    .
  • p. 64: ““On the evening before he saw – whatever he saw – he had drunk a good deal of wine and his gyp says he also took a dose of laudanum as he retired to bed.” – a male college servant, as at Cambridge and Durham.
    .
  • p. 69: ““The ones you see below are of the poorer sort – sizars in the main, that is to say, undergraduates who are supported by the foundation.”” – (at Cambridge University and at Trinity College, Dublin) an undergraduate who receives maintenance aid from the college.
    .
  • p. 98: ““If you consult his Nosology of Mania you will find the doctrine explained in great detail.”” – the systematic classification of diseases.
    .
  • p. 114: “If Whichcote dunned him for money, which he might well do, Archdale would have to apply to his guardian for another advance on next quarter’s allowance, which would lead in turn to another ugly scene, as a consequence of which he might not be able to visit Paris in the Long Vacation after all.” – to make repeated and insistent demands upon, esp. for the payment of a debt.
    .
  • p. 120: ““I had sketched the theme – I had drafted perhaps a third or a half of the verses but I thought them a trifle pinguid.”” – fatty, oily, or greasy; soapy.
    .
  • p. 188: “They began with a fresh salmon boiled and garnished with fried smelts, anchovy sauce and shrimps, with a calf’s head, chicken pie and a chine of roasted mutton.” – the whole or a piece of the backbone of an animal with adjoining parts, cut for cooking.
    .
  • p. 397: ““You told no one of this?” Holdsworth said. “You realize that lays you open to a charge of misprision of felony at the very least?”” – failure by one not an accessory to prevent or notify the authorities of treason or felony.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2011 9:03 am

    Hm, I’m not a big fan of historical works, so this probably isn’t for me.

    • January 18, 2011 11:50 am

      bermudaonion – Probably not, since I thought the historical part was its strongest point, but I’m sure there are other historical mysteries out there that might be more up your alley.

  2. January 17, 2011 11:35 am

    Oo, yeah, Heresy! That’s been on my list for a while and I keep forgetting about it! My takeaway from this review is I need to read Heresy already. :p

    • January 18, 2011 11:51 am

      Jenny – I think that’s a pretty good takeaway, actually. :)

      • January 19, 2011 9:27 am

        Well, you already know that I loved Anatomy but I do like the sound of Heresy – off to quickly add to wishlist! Thanks for the recommendation. :-)

      • January 20, 2011 9:00 am

        Teresa – Great! I hope you enjoy it!

  3. January 24, 2011 9:36 pm

    The not being creeped out part is a plus for me but I’m sure the loose ends will drive me mad.

    • January 26, 2011 10:17 am

      Carrie – Yeah, there were a few story threads that I really wish had been carried just a chapter or two further.

  4. January 25, 2011 9:52 pm

    Rats, the not being creeped out is not a positive for me! I like being scared. That being said, this book is getting all kinds of reviews everywhere, from here and overseas, so I’ve requested it at the library. I like historicals and mysteries, so even if the ghostly isn’t so ghostly, I’ll give it a try. Thanks for the review, Fyrefly. And like the others, I’m off to look up Heresy also!!

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