Friday, April 29, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts

Set in the late 1700's Andrew Taylor's The Anatomy of Ghosts is a mystery set in Cambridge University's Jerusalem College. The college is a small one and had been started by the ancestors of Lady Anne Oldershaw. The story opens with one woman (Mrs. Whitcote) wandering through the streets of Cambridge into the Jerusalem College gardens and another young woman dying before she can be the sacrifice for a group of collegians known as the Holy Ghost Club.

In London, John Holdworth is a book seller. His young son drowns in the Thames. His wife spends most of her time mourning her son while in the company of a medium who claims to be able to relay messages from the woman's dead son. After trying to get his wife some help, Holdworth writes a book debunking ghost sightings. This book, called The Anatomy of Ghosts has some success throughout London. Lady Oldershaw is familiar with the book.

Lady Oldershaw hires Holdworth to catalog and organize a large private library belonging to her late husband. She has another plan for Holdworth as well - she really wants to discuss ghost sightings. Her son, Frank, a student at Jerusalem College, has been institutionalized after losing his mind after seeing what he believes to be the ghost of Mrs. Whitcote. Frank was being initiated into the Holy Ghost Club the night he saw the ghost. Lady Oldershaw sends Holdworth to Cambridge to investigate what exactly happened to her son.

After all that background, the story finally starts. The set up takes along time and while interesting, the prose is difficult to find a rhythm in. It is evocative of another time - the time period the book is set in. Once you get used to the somewhat stilted language the story is a good one. There are plenty of secrets being kept at Jerusalem College and plenty of people who don't want their secrets out. Holdworth is a man you would want to know, Lady Oldershaw is a good example of an overprotective mother used to getting her way and Frank is the wild, rich college boy. The Holy Ghost Club is the secret society. They all come together is a somewhat surprising way. And the end of the story and the explanations of the ghost sightings is really clever.

Despite the slow start I enjoyed the book. It's a little bit creepy, but a good mystery overall.

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