Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Delicious Death: The Anatomy of Ghosts

As you may know, my dissertation was all about CRIME and therefore (and I feel awkward about admitting to this, as though I had a root canal and didn't even need to ask for an anaesthetic) alarmingly fun to write.

My theory, really only a theory in the way that 'The Pope is probably a Catholic' is a theory, is that Golden Age detective novelists like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey used real Victorian crimes as a basis for their plots. I mean, they did. It's true. Clouds of Witness is a rehash of the Road House Murder, about half of Agatha Christie's short stories use the Chocolate Cream poisoner and Brat Farrar is just the Tichborne Claimant case with a bit of window-dressing. QED, we can all go home. The difficult thing for me to work out was why almost no one else has ever written about this.

Anyway, so there was I in the British Library Reading Room, wading through piles of useless criticism and feeling more and more as though I could actually be wrong and on dissertation hand-in day I might be patted on the head and led away to a nice quiet locked room. Then I turned a page of an essay by Andrew Taylor on Tey and read the phrase 'Brat Farrar is Tey's version of the 19th century case of the Tichborne Claimant'.

I made a noise that can basically be described as a high-pitched animal howl with added sob of joy. I very nearly got up and did a victory lap.

It felt good to be agreed with, is what I am saying, especially when the person agreeing with you is a crime writer himself. I ended up emailing Taylor just to make sure he didn't know something I'd missed (like an essay where Josephine Tey talked about her great and abiding love for the Tichborne case) and he replied saying no, it just seemed obvious. Which made me approve of him as a person.

This all made me want to find out whether I approved of Andrew Taylor as a writer. So down I went to my local library and lo and behold, there was his latest novel, The Anatomy of Ghosts.

The last historical crime novel I read left me colder than the nipple of Satan. As a commenter pointed out, that might just have been me, but nevertheless, I hated it. The writing felt off, the period detail felt off and the characters felt so 'historical' they might as well have been aliens. Thank god, then, that Andrew Taylor has reminded me that historical crime fiction can sometimes be pretty great.

Set in Cambridge in 1786, The Anatomy of Ghosts starts with a meeting of a club in which students get catatonically wasted while pretending to be Jesus and his Apsotles. As you do. Of course, because this is That Kind Of Club, to become a full member you have to go through an extremely unpleasant ritual, and of course, because this is that kind of book, tonight that ritual has gone... very badly wrong.

Cue intrigue.

From that snappy and beautifully alarming beginning, though, things get a bit more diffuse. I was expecting a simple, linear murder mystery, but that wasn't what I got. Yes, there's murder in it, but the book and its characters are more interested in what happens after people are dead than in working out exactly how they came to be dead in the first place. The main character, Holdsworth, doesn't even know he's supposed to be an amateur detective - the author of a rational pamphlet on why ghosts don't exist, he's been drafted in to disprove the haunting of one of the University's students.

Said haunting, by the way, is one of the worst ever, and one of the book's weaker points. Yes, eighteen year old boys are stupid, and drunk eighteen year old boys are even more so, but surely even the drunkest, stupidest eighteen year old boy would wake up the next morning and realise that ghosts don't generally take corporeal form and hang out under trees? I wondered why Holdsworth was spending so much time trying to find a logical explanation when it would have been far more easy to give the kid a whack on the head and tell him to stop being so criminally silly.

Luckily, The Anatomy of Ghosts' other hauntings are much more effective. Holdsworth's got a sad, eerie backstory, and there's a creepily simple side-plot about a dead girl who talks and talks and won't leave the poor maid she shares a room with alone. As I said, the actual murder is a fairly slender part of the whole, and I was surprised to find that I didn't find the result structurally thin. Taylor's very strong on interesting, fun background detail, and because of that his 1786 is a place that I enjoyed visiting for as long as the book lasted.

A lot of this is because Taylor has given real thought to the way the people in his novel would reasonably be expected to behave. His characters aren't stock Historical Folk, gurning and capering and throwing slop buckets on each other, but they're not anachronistic transplants from 2010 either. Taylor's gone at least some way towards giving them the prejudices and belief systems actual people from 1786 would have had, even when those prejudices don't match up with our own.

I've written about the problem I have with this in C. J. Sansom's novels. His historical detail is great, but his detective Shardlake is liberal in a way that is pleasing to a twenty-first century audience but potentially unlikely in the late sixteenth century. In The Anatomy of Ghosts, though, we get a 1786 that's recognisably different from today. Freedom and democracy may be creeping in, but the upper class characters don't have to like it. Characters who are presented as basically good human beings are still shown reacting furiously when a lower-class person steps out of line, men behave awfully to women (not that that's changed at all) and pretty much everyone is a horrible snob.

Really, The Anatomy of Ghosts is a historical novel with a dash of murder on top. For me, it was the perfect combination of historical facts I knew and could relate to, and new information that I could use to flesh out my existing mental image of 1786. Taylor's made his time period come to life, and the result is a book that reads easily and well, a text that's smart without seeming clever-clever. I approved of it and, what's more important, I enjoyed reading it. It's not your conventional historical murder mystery, and you shouldn't quite expect it to be, but for what it is I liked it a lot. And now I shall be reading all of Andrew Taylor's other books.

3.5 stars.

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