And not a ghost in sight

Andrew Taylor's Anatomy of ghosts is, in spite of the title, a non-ghost story. The theme at the heart of the novel is the way in which superstition can be used as a sort of cover-up for what is really going on. Not just superstition either, it also looks at the way in which basic assumptions can be misleading.
However, in case you get the idea that this is a serious tome with a deep meaning - it isn't. Basically it is a reasonably decent detective story in an historic setting. Set in late eighteenth century Cambridge, John Holdsworth is employed by a member of the gentry ostensibly to check out a college library with a view to depositing a collection there. His main priority however is to restore Lady Anne Oldershaw's son's mental health, and to uncover the real reason why Frank Oldershaw claims to have seen a ghost (Holdsworth is a well-known atheist and pamphleteer against fake psychics). Once arrived at Jerusalem College, Holdsworth soon finds that there are various nasty things going on and must try to untangle the extraneous threads to find a way to a solution.

Although pretty well written the answer to the crime, and for that matter to the ghost, are fairly obvious from early on. In fact one of the characters keeps reiterating the answer! Taylor tends to shy away from anything too meaty, so although the details of the Hell-Fire club that plays a central part in the tale are well written, it's treated as almost incidental to the tale, as is Holdsworth's relationship with the Master's wife. This leaves you feeling that there's no central point to cling to, and the novel becomes an oddly unbalanced read, settling in one place and then shying away again to another.

Although the characters are well-developed the background, Cambridge, is strangely disappointing. I felt that the author knew the town more from books and maps, than from actually pounding the streets, and it failed to come to life (and yes I live near here and work in Cambridge, so I do know it well). Certainly compared to Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew series, or Karen Maitland's compulsively readable The company of liars previously reviewed on here, the background atmosphere is strangely lacking.

Worth reading to pass the time but I wouldn't rush out and buy it.


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