The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

“More ghosts,” Elinor said. “It seems that we constantly manufacture them. We are factories of ghosts.”

(pg. 438, ARC)

Jerusalem College in Cambridge in 1786 is full of secrets, privileges, abuses, power struggles, illicit sex. And a ghost. Sylvia Whichcote, who drowned in the garden pond, is said to haunt the garden and was seen by young Frank Olderhaw. Frank was subsequently committed to a home for the mentally unstable, but his mother wants him cured and returned to London. To this end, she hires John Holdsworth, a bookseller and widower who has fallen into financial ruin. John has written a book, The Anatomy of Ghosts, that explains his disbelief in ghosts, and so Lady Anne believes he is perfect for the task. When he arrives in Cambridge, Holdsworth realizes that to help Frank he must solve the mystery of Sylvia’s death. In the process, he is drawn deeper in the Cambridge community, and encounters scholars, playboys, attractive women, sly servants, and street urchins in need of money, all connected in some way to a secret society that meets within the college’s walls.

There are no true ghosts in this novel, but most of the characters are haunted, by memories of those they loved, by past choices or deeds, by future possibilities. The story overall is quite melancholy, the atmosphere of Cambridge dark, gloomy and oppressive. There are no good guys here or true villains either, in my opinion, only people who fall in the shades of gray.

Holdsworth is a typical amateur sleuth – aloof, intelligent, a loner and outsider who others nevertheless tend to confide in. The plot takes twists and turns; it moves slowly, but with a momentum that kept me reading. I knew that all the secrets were going to come out, but wasn’t sure what the fallout would be.

I felt that this novel did transport me to 18th century Cambridge, to an insulated college community where downright nastiness is laid over by a veneer of respectability. I do think the setting is what makes this one stand out. It’s well-done, feels authentic.

496 pages
First published 2010

4 out of 5 stars

Purchase at Amazon or an Indie bookstore.

Just one more comment: Did you know that Cambridge is the second-oldest university in both England and the English-speaking world and the seventh-oldest globally?

Challenge: Mystery and Suspense

I received my ARC from the publisher and the above is my honest review.