John Holdsworth has lost everything. His young son Georgie drowned in the Thames and his wife is convinced that Georgie is relaying messages to her through a medium. When his wife also drowns, Holdsworth writes a pamphlet called The Anatomy of Ghosts with the intent of debunking the existence of ghosts and hopefully sparing other people the dangerous deception his wife fell under. The pamphlet comes to the attention of Lady Anne Oldershaw, who hires Holdsworth to go to Jerusalem College in Cambridge and visit her son Frank, who is convinced that he saw the ghost of the late Mrs. Whichcote. At Cambridge, Holdsworth’s investigation leads him down dark alleys of academic intrigue, secret societies, and the affection of a married woman.
In The Anatomy of Ghosts, Andrew Taylor has written a moody, atmospheric mystery. I love books set in British academia – there is something so fascinating about how the college system is it’s own little microcosm. The class hierarchy is intricate, and the society comes with its own vocabulary and economic system. The academic world is intriguing in and of itself, but when you add in the curiosity of secret societies, with their dangerous allegiances and rituals, you have the perfect Gothic setting.
One of the first things I noticed when I started reading were the Dickensian names of the characters: John Holdsworth, Tom Turdman, Tobias Soresby, Phillip Whichcote, Mrs. Phear. The suitability of these names becomes even more clear as you read and discover the profession and character of the people in question, and as the various intrigues and connections between them are revealed.
The mystery unfolds slowly, but never seems to drag. Holdsworth is an intuitive man, and his character works very well as the reluctant sleuth. I was honestly kept guessing until the very end, when the true identity of the murderer is revealed. My only complaint is that the revelations in the last couple of chapters come fast and furious – too quickly, almost as if the author wanted to get things wrapped up and done. I would have liked the end to continue with the same pace of gradual revelation as the rest of the book. This is a minor complaint, however, and will not keep me from picking up further titles by Andrew Taylor.