Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor - review

Andrew Taylor has written a good many books over the years, but he has been slightly less prolific in recent times, which made me all the more eager to read his latest, The Scent of Death. And that's because I think it's fair to say that the appearance of a new Andrew Taylor novel has become an Event, rather in the way that the arrival of a new book by that exceptionally entertaining writer Reginald Hill used to be an Event. Yes, Andrew is that good. The over-riding question, inevitably, is whether the new book matches the high standards of its predecessors such as The American Boy and Bleeding Heart Square. The answer is an emphatic yes. This is a marvellous book.

The story is set in the late eighteenth century, in New York. Edward Savill, a clerk, has been sent on government business at a time when war is raging as many (but not all) Americans press for independence. His arrival sets in motion an elaborate seqeunce of events whose significance does not become clear for a long time. This is a long book, and a masterly example of how to pace a story. A series of small incidents keep the plot moving along while the characters and their environment are developed with unobtrusive skill.

Savill is staying with Judge Wintour and his family, the most intirguing of whom is Wintour's daughter-in-law, Arabella. A man called Pickett who had visited the Wintours in rather mysterious circumstances, is found murdered, and other deaths occur. Time passes, and Arabella's husband, a soldier, returns home. Strange tensions in the Wintours' marriage become evident,although their cause is unclear. Meanwhile, Savill's own marriage runs into trouble.

There are many incidental pleasures in this book. As usual, there are one or two sly references to Taylor's other work - he once used the pen-name Saville, for instance, and an HMS Lydmouth, named after his excellent series set in post-war Britain, makes an appearance. Whilst it's fun to try to detect these little snippets, I really hope that one day he can be persuaded to set out the various cross-references in his books, which I suspect some readers may not have noticed.

I knew very little about this period of American history, but Taylor achieves the distinction of imparting a great deal of information without making his research obvious - and he makes it all extremely interesting. The story-line is gripping from start to finish, even though I was unsure for a long time where it was leading, while the writing is of the highest quality throughout. I figured out one aspect of the plot, but others had me on tenterhooks. This is quite possibly the best book so far from one of our most distinguished crime novelists. Strongly recommended.


Ant Harrison said...

Can't wait to read this. Andrew Taylor is a brilliant writer, and although more popular and well known now, he is still too often over-looked and underated.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Ant. Yes,he is a class act.