This is the tale of a chain of events, a sort of horrible Rube Goldberg device in which the drowning death of the young son of bookbinder John Holdsworth leads directly to the dissolution of Holdsworth’s business and loss of his home and suicide (or at least death) of his wife. His wife’s depression and mania for trying to contact the spirit world – and of course the spirit of her son – leads directly to Holdsworth’s somewhat obsessive, somewhat vindictive authorship of “The Anatomy of Ghosts”, uncompromisingly refuting the existence of spirits and the legitimacy of the mediums who take advantage of the bereaved by claiming to contact their dead. The publication of the book leads directly to a visit to Holdsworth’s shabby rooms by a mysterious man with a mysterious commission – and that is, in a way, where the story begins again. The commission is from Lady Anne Oldershaw, whose son has evidently been driven mad by the sight of a spirit on the grounds of Cambridge, and Holdsworth is bidden to come and bust, or hunt, the ghost. He doesn’t have many options, and so to Cambridge he goes.
I’m not sure what it is about this book that didn’t sit well with me. It’s well-written, and I didn’t make note of anything specific about the plot or characters or setting, or writing in general, which put my teeth on edge; the closest I can come to explaining is that it was like driving a car with a small clog in some hose somewhere, or one tire slightly off balance – just a bit off. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, but (except where it was supposed to) it never amounted to outright dislike. The story is set in 1786, and Taylor seems to have a good feel for the period. He creates a properly creepy setting for the rituals the proto-frat house holds; he does a nice job of drawing some properly sinister characters and some well-rounded weak characters (that looks odd: weak in nature, not in depiction), and some characters who can’t quite be trusted, however prominent they are in the narration. But even though it all does follow, event after circumstance after happening, there is just something askew about the storytelling I can’t put my finger on, especially at a bit of a remove.
Bad? No. Something I’ll reread, or which will send me off after other books by Andrew Taylor? No.