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William Hogarth, “The Rake’s Progress,” plate 3, “The Tavern Scene.” Black-and-white image courtesy of The Gutenberg Project.

Review: The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew W. Taylor

Hyperion, 2011. 412 pp. $25.

By all accounts, late eighteenth-century English towns were foul-smelling sinkholes, where physical and moral corruption bred like flies in drawing rooms and hovels alike. Andrew Taylor has imagined a college at Cambridge, named Jerusalem, a most unholy nest that stinks to high heaven, crowded with power-seekers, hypocrites, and carousing young gentlemen of high birth and low morals.

The latest malodorous scandal concerns a young undergraduate, Frank Oldershaw, who has had a nervous breakdown because, he says, he saw the ghost of a woman who drowned herself. Ghosts and their sightings may be as common as mud among the lower orders, but Frank Oldershaw is an aristocrat, and “self-murder,” as it is called, is so reprehensible a crime that nobody of breeding speaks of it.

Consequently, Frank’s widowed mother, Lady Anne Oldershaw desires to restore her son’s health and reputation; like any doting parent, she doesn’t know (or prefers not to know) that her boy witnessed his vision following an appalling debauch, gross even by Jerusalem College standards. To investigate, Lady Anne hires John Holdsworth, a bookseller who has achieved small notoriety for a book he wrote debunking ghosts as fictions of the superstitious and those who would prey on them.

What Holdsworth finds, and, more importantly, how he goes about it, make compelling reading. Without giving too much away, it’s enough to say that he has strong personal motives to lay this or any ghost, and that specters of all sorts trouble the characters of this tale. Of course, Holdsworth’s ability to gather and sift evidence make him a first-class detective. But his perceptions of human behavior, and how self-interest shapes how we see ourselves and others, are what truly set him apart from everyone he meets. His loneliness in insight and the implicit divisions in a rigid class system complicate his efforts to understand the Oldershaw case and himself.

Holdershaw’s growth as a character adds an extra, unusual dimension to an excellent mystery, told with gusto, deftness, and natural command of a historical scene. I read few historical mysteries, or even mysteries in general, but I recommend this one.