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The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 2: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The second in a new series of mini-reviews that focus on what a book I've enjoyed has to offer a writer. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers.


It's the late eighteenth century, and bookseller John Holdsworth has fallen on sad, hard times, with bankrupcty, the death of his child and the suicide of his wife, both by drowning. To help the crazed son of a possible patron he must find the truth of the ghost of a drowned woman which has been sighted in Jerusalem College, Cambridge. But this is the time when the Enlightenment has reached some minds but not many institutions: the Master is dying, the rich students are debauched and ignorant, poor students are servants to the point of accepting money to write essays, debts will land you in prison and sex is a commodity which can kill. (Did I mention that there's a satirical streak too?)

Why I enjoyed it:

Here is the enclosed world of the classical detective story: its hierarchies and tensions, the limited circle of suspects, the reasons for innocent people to lie, the stranger in town - or in this case, in College. So in one sense it's a classically-built 'varsity crime novel: if you know your Sayers, Morse, Imogen Quy, or C P Snow,  then it's fun watching the same conflicts and dynamics, snobberies, self-deceptions and fears refracted and reflected in a gilded, filthy, time-spotted roccoco looking-glass. And yet that's only a small part of it; while never letting the tension slacken, and providing twists galore not just in events but in characters, Taylor also meditates on loss, grief and love, and weaves a delicate and moving tapestry of John's slow, hesitant, un-looked-for growth into some kind of hopefulness.

Three reasons for a writer to read it: 

1) It's set in a very specific time, in one sense, between the American Revolution and the fall of the Bastille: the Englightenment turning-point in all sorts of ideas about how minds work, how they fall ill and how they mend, and what, if anything, the supernatural consists of. And yet I never felt that the project was to demonstrate these, or explain things, or do anything that a history book would be doing. They come along, wholly naturally, as part of how people are, and why things happen ... which is much harder to do than you'd think. Maybe it helps that Taylor started as a crime writer, not an historical writer.

2) The prose is perfectly pitched. While there's scarcely a sentence - period details aside - which would seem out of place in a contemporary-set novel, whether it's the hallucinations of bereavement or a brutal initiation ceremony, the pace and shape of them are infused with their setting: again they're the natural embodiment in this writer's voice of a fully-imagined and inhabited world.

3) It never does any harm to read books that have won prizes, and this won the CWA Diamond Dagger for 2009. Plus, Andrew Taylor is hugely experienced, has been very highly regarded since his debut, Caroline Miniscule, knows exactly what he's doing, and is currently in the bestsellers' lists with The Silent Boy. He's a writer to learn from, as well as to enjoy.