If you have not yet gone on holiday, do pack The Anatomy of Ghosts. It is excellent airport reading; and this is no trivial recommendation. Airports are where one needs fiction most desperately — and nowhere more so than in Kabul, where I had to work through no fewer than seven queues for incompetent security checks, inching up a modern version of Purgatory. Even in these testing conditions, Andrew Taylor’s book beguiled.
The Anatomy of Ghosts is, like Taylor’s best-known previous novel, The American Boy, historical crime fiction. In a further refinement of genres, it is a historical campus murder mystery, being set in Cambridge in 1765, in a fictional college, Jerusalem, that bears a remarkable topographical resemblance to Emmanuel — even down to a huge and ancient weeping oriental plane tree in the Master’s garden. Some pedants may object that the ornamental planes in Jesus and Emma were not planted until the start of the 19th century; however, a 17th-century bishop of Ely boasted a well-grown plane tree, so this is not a horticultural anachronism.
Historical fiction, unfortunately, does bring out one’s inner pedant. Taylor’s book starts with a stumble: a coolly sinister account of a university hellfire club — the Pitt of hell — is marred by inaccuracy. The louche upper-class drinkers of the debauched Holy Ghost club, who name themselves after the disciples of Christ, apparently believe that SS Luke and Mark are Apostles. Eighteenth- century blasphemers would surely be better informed.
This, however, is a rare aberration. The great strength of the novel, indeed, is in its reconstruction of a tightly closed and unedifying society — a brutal aristocracy and brutalised under-classes. From the Master of Jerusalem down to the stinking night-soil man, Tom Turdman, all have an eye to their own advantage. Remnants of humanity and sparks of scholarship cling on precariously.
Taylor does not make the common sentimental mistake of presenting the women in his tale as repositories for modern sensibilities. The world he depicts is a masculine one, dominated by Fellows, fellow commoners, sizars and gyps, but the women are shaped by its values. The Master’s wife, Elinor Carbury, has married for social advantage and economic security. She is neither condemned nor excused for this (though her physically and morally repellent husband becomes unexpectedly sympathetic). Servants, procuresses, whores and respectable wives are all to some degree grasping. That is the way things are, and the way these women have to be.
The closed world of academia is, of course, a superb setting for a crime novel. Oxford claims the higher fictional body count; Gervase Fen, Lord Peter Wimsey and Inspector Morse are all Oxford men (Margery Allingham’s Campion was a Cambridge riposte to Wimsey). Even the best recent example of historical crime fiction, Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, is set in Restoration Oxford.
Taylor’s Cambridge mystery might seem to suffer in comparison; Pears’s novel is indeed far richer in the history of ideas and politics. But Taylor is, deliberately, depicting a college at a time of intellectual decay. The ferment in his Jerusalem is not of ideas but of stagnation, which creates its own poisonous backwater atmosphere.
The hero, John Holdsworth, is not an academic but an outsider, a failing bookseller. As his name suggests, he is a man attempting to hold on to some sort of values, in mean and squalid byways. He is a decent but damaged hero: his son has drowned; his wife fell prey to an unscrupulous clairvoyant and committed suicide. Holdsworth wrote a bitter diatribe against credulity, The Anatomy of Ghosts, a work of ostensibly enlightened scepticism, fuelled by dark guilt and despair.
A debauched session of the Holy Ghost club has left two young women dead. A rich fellow-commoner, Frank Oldershaw, believes he has encountered the ghost of one of them, and the belief, apparently, has sent him mad. A servant girl is kept awake by the ghostly babblings of the other victim; but neither of these girls has rich relations.
Frank’s mother, Lady Anne Oldershaw, is, however, not only rich, but a patron of Jerusalem College. She has read Holdsworth’s pamphlet, and employs him to disabuse and restore her son. But the true ghosts to be faced in this novel are those of memory and guilt, and some stains will prove ineradicable.
One of the annoying questions regularly asked of crime novels is ‘is it more than a crime novel’? This implies that such books are usually bad fiction (not always the case) and that ‘serious’ fiction is generally good (not usually the case). But much good fiction, as well as all crime novels, is driven by the desire to entertain: crime fiction puts the reader first. Dickens wrote the equivalent of Victorian airport novels, read by low-brows like the train-travelling Captain Brown in Cranford.
Taylor may, perhaps, suffer in critical esteem because his book is stylistically relatively low-key. There is no show-off historical ventriloquism. Even his dialogue is mainly neutral, despite a few Heyer-esque flourishes, such as ‘funning’ and ‘bamming’ — rather appropriate verbs for Taylor’s technique). His well-researched book remains deceptively cool, even when glancing over dark materials.
Viewed purely as a crime novel, the solution is not particularly fiendish; but humanity may be more darkly confused than ingenious, and the ending is satisfying enough. Overall, indeed, if one could institute awards for airport fiction this would merit the high rating of a ‘Kabul’.