Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of Ghosts is nothing to write home about.  Set in the 1780s, it was going to be a treat for me to read a historical fiction NOT set in Medieval or Tutor Britain.  I specialized in the Hanoverian age, and was wondering what the author would do with the time period.  Well, he ignored it.  There was very little indication of the time period, other than the occasional mention of powdered hair and unlocking of tea caddies.

Admittedly, this short coming can be laid at the feet of the location for the story – Cambridge.  The University long held on to (and in some ways still does) its Medieval traditions.  Still, the author over-looked the actual time period that the novel was set in in a number of unforgivable ways.

Besides the problems with the when and where of the work, I found I had problems with the ‘who.’  The story is set around John Holdsworth, a down-on-his-luck bookseller from London.  Holdsworth has recently lost his wife and son to accidents when he is approached by a descendent of the founder of Jerusalem College (a fictional institution) at Cambridge.  Lady Anne Oldershaw wants Holdworth to go to Cambridge to find out why her son has seemingly gone mad after seeing a ghost, under the cover of assessing the current state of the College’s library.  And off Holdsworth goes.  His only tenuous claim to credentials in this mission is that he was the author of a short treaty entitled “The Anatomy of Ghosts,” written after the death of his son.  

Holdsworth finds himself in Cambridge as Lady Oldershaw’s representative, and assessing the mental capabilities of her son, Frank.  But why?  There had been no previous indication that Holdsworth had any sort of inquisitive mind or ability to ferret out the truth.  That jump in logic sunk the book for me – something that should have taken a day to read took 4 because I just wasn’t interested enough.  Not only was Holdsworth assessing Frank’s condition, but he was then entrusted with taking him out of the facility he had been placed in, and overseeing his recovering in a secluded location.  Again, WHY?  The author never offered any rational for why this was viewed as a feasible turn of events.

The mystery that ties the entire work together is diluted by a secondary plot that only connects to the main in the very last instance.  Rather than add colour to the work, it adds distraction.  In the end though, it’s that secondary plot that is the key to revealing all – I’ve always thought of this as a sloppy way for an author to proceed.  True, an author’s work is a world of their own in which anything could happen, but the 11th hour revelations always seem to cheapen a book.

All in all, not a great book, but not the worst either.  If, however, you’re looking for a similar type of read, I would first recommend you check out the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom.  This set of 5 books is set in the Tudor period and follows the lawyer Shardlake as he investigates various crimes/situation at the direction of the Crown.  I know I started off saying it was nice to see a historical fiction not set in Medieval/Tudor Britain, but since Tyalor’s work reads like a Medieval/Tudor work because of its setting, I found myself comparing it frequently with Sansom’s works.  All in all, I recommend that you skip Taylor and go straight for Sansom.

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