Andrew Taylor: The Anatomy of Ghosts (review)


‘It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.’

Dr Johnson, 31 March 1778 (Boswell’s Life of Johnson)

I received this one as a present from my brother and although murder mystery is not a genre I typically read, I was sufficiently intrigued by the blurb to not only keep the book but to actually get around to reading it. And only about a year after receiving it. Pretty impressive, I have to say!

Unfortunately, the book itself was not as impressive. The plot sounds really good. It’s a historical murder mystery set in 1786. A woman has been found drowned at Jerusalem College at Cambridge. Her ghost is seen walking the grounds with disastrous consequences for a young man. This young gentleman, Frank Oldershaw, becomes so disturbed by the sight that he has to be checked into a mental facility where the doctor tries to cure him with ‘moral management’ (which seems to be a refined version of bullying. The refined being that it’s done by trained professionals, not kids).

Naturally, his mother is most concerned about this her only child so she hires John Holdsworth, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts, to investigate. Holdsworth is no stranger to ghosts and heart ache after having lost his young son in a drowning accident and only months later, the child’s mother too, after she had been claiming to see her son’s ghost.

Holdsworth goes to Cambridge to explore and to see how Frank Oldershaw is doing. He soon finds out that Jerusalem College is a world in itself with it’s own rules and class system. The Master is naturally not very interested in having rumors about female ghosts scaring the students to insanity so he is most interested in helping Holdsworth. And so is his wife. Even more so than her husband. And not just for the good of the college.

Holdsworth soon finds himself entangled in college politics while trying to figure out whether the woman died of natural causes or was helped, if the ghost was really a ghost or something else and if Frank Oldershaw has really gone mad.

See – so much potential. People drowned left and right, female ghosts, secret societies, servants, mental institutes for the well-to-do, a man going quack and even a night-soil man. It has everything in it to be a great book. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to this potential.

It really wasn’t all that exciting and even though I didn’t figure the plot out, I also didn’t care much. I felt a bit bad for poor Holdsworth having lost his wife and child but really, none of these characters were going to keep me up at night to find out their fate. The book was interesting enough to keep reading and finishing but not something to remember for very long. Also, I found the writing rather bad at times. It seemed like Taylor switched into bad romance mood with sentences like this: ‘He smiled at her and she noticed that he had a full set of teeth. He was a well-made man, she thought, with nothing flabby about him.’ (p. 145) and ‘She did not look back but she knew that he would be standing there still, beside the gate, looking through the grill at her retreating figure.’ (p. 147).

It was one of those all-right’ish books that you read, are okay entertained by but nothing special about it. And it could have been so much more.

Oh, how I wished Wilkie Collins had written this one …

  • Title: The Anatomy of Ghosts
  • Author: Andrew Taylor
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Year: 2011 (2011)
  • Pages: 472 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

4 thoughts on “Andrew Taylor: The Anatomy of Ghosts (review)

  1. I could not get through this one. I didn’t count it as a “do not finish” because it was only a few pages in that I realized I could not read it. At least, not at that moment. I might pick it up again at some point though.

  2. Even though this doesn’t so like a recommended read, the synopsis sounds so great that I still want to read it haha. Would you absolutely not recommend it, or could you see someone liking it? (Mystery isn’t my jam either, which is why I kind of want to read it.)

    I’ll try to read it before The Moonstone, so the bar isn’t set so high 😉

    • I’m sure it can be enjoyable for some. It’s not so bad that I would recommend staying clear of it. I think I was mostly annoyed by the fact that it could have been so much better!

      • I read a few other reviews and your response isn’t an uncommon one. A lot of people seem to have been sucked in by the premise only to be a little let down by the execution. Maybe I’ll save this one for a rainy day.

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