The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

After I read The Anatomy of Ghosts earlier in the year, I asked for opinions on Andrew Taylor’s other books. Well, I’d like to thank the three people who left comments recommending The American Boy (published in the US as An Unpardonable Crime) as I thought this one was even better than The Anatomy of Ghosts. As someone who loves classic sensation novels (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood etc) it’s maybe unsurprising that I enjoyed this book so much. It has all the elements of a sensation novel and although it was published in 2003 it almost feels as if it could have been written in the 19th century.

The American Boy is set in England during the final months of the reign of George III. The story begins in September 1819 when our narrator, Thomas Shield, is starting a new job as a teacher at a small private school in the village of Stoke Newington. One of the boys at the school is the ten-year-old Edgar Allan Poe, the ‘American boy’ of the title. Shield is given special responsibility for tutoring Edgar and his best friend, Charles Frant, and through the two boys he becomes acquainted with two rich banking families – the Frants and their cousins, the Carswells. He soon becomes caught up in the dramas that are unfolding within the Frant and Carswell families and when two murders take place it seems that Shield’s own life could also be in danger.

The plot is so intricate and complex I won’t even try to go into any more detail, but in addition to the murders, there’s also a disputed will, mistaken identities, family secrets, betrayal, revenge and even romance. Thomas Shield’s adventures take place in a variety of wonderfully atmospheric locations from the dark, foggy streets and over-crowded slums of London to the snowy landscape of the Carswells’ country estate in Gloucestershire, complete with an ice house and ruined abbey. Taylor made his settings feel vivid and real without going into pages and pages of description.

I should point out that although Edgar Allan Poe does have an important part to play in the story, he’s really just a minor character. I actually thought this whole aspect of the book was unnecessary as the plot would have been strong enough without it and a fictional character could easily have been used in his place. I’m not complaining as I do like Poe and found his brief appearances interesting, but I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking this is a book about Poe because it really isn’t.

Although I hadn’t included this book on my list for the RIP challenge, I’m going to count it as my first book for RIP anyway (I don’t know why I bother making lists for challenges as I never, ever stick to them!) The American Boy isn’t what I would describe as a scary book, but it is a very dark and suspenseful mystery – a perfect book to curl up with and enjoy at this time of year.

I know it’s a cliché but I didn’t want to put this book down and the very short chapters made it even more tempting to keep reading. If it hadn’t been so long (500 pages) I could have read it all in one sitting. I also appreciated the author’s attempts to make the book feel like an authentic 19th century novel through his use of language and Thomas Shield’s narrative style. It won’t be for everyone though; you either like this type of book or you don’t, but for anyone who has enjoyed books such as The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox or The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, I can highly recommend this one.

20 thoughts on “The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

  1. Carl V. says:

    I’m actually more interested in reading it because of the fact that you point out Poe is more of a minor character. I really like Edgar Allen Poe, but his existence as a fictional character would more likely have put me off reading this had I just picked the book up off the shelf. As it stands your review makes this sound very, very good. I like contemporary authors who can write novels that feel as if they are much older. There isn’t enough of that, in my opinion, so I try to make sure I snatch up any good ones that come along.

    • Helen says:

      I love this type of book but there are definitely not enough of them! I wish I’d discovered Andrew Taylor earlier as I really enjoyed both this and The Anatomy of Ghosts.

  2. Eva says:

    Ohh: I love sensation novels too! Like Carl, I wouldn’t have picked this up due to Poe being fictionalised (it’s a pet peeve of mine to use real historical people as anything more than v minor characters), but you’ve sold me!

    • Helen says:

      Sometimes I enjoy novels about real historical figures and sometimes I don’t – it depends on my mood and the individual book. Poe is definitely a very minor character in this one, though – he could have been any ten-year-old boy really.

    • Helen says:

      I hadn’t even heard of it until I read one of his other books and a few people told me to look out for this one. It definitely reminded me of one of those Victorian sensation novels (although it’s set slightly earlier than the Victorian period).

  3. Virginie M says:

    Hello !

    My first comment on this blog upon my first visit…I too am a huge fan of sensational novels and I think I am going to enjoy visiting here often.

    This book sounds quite good, I mooched it through bookmooch and I should get it soon since it has shipped, cannot wait to put my hand on it ! I absolutely adored “the Quincunx” when I read it some years ago.
    I had liked “Bleeding Heart Square” very much, by A.Taylor as well.
    Best wishes from France, Virginie

    • Carl V. says:

      Ah, The Quincunx by Charles Palliser! I read that book many years ago when it first came out. In fact, it was the book I took on my Honeymoon (what, books on a Honeymoon? Yes, my wife and I have always been avid readers, LOL!).

      I remember just being stunned by it. I stayed up late one night because the book got to a point that I could not even think of putting it down. It is a book that I would recommend all Dickens fans read.

    • Helen says:

      Hi Virginie, nice to meet another fan of sensation novels! I hope you enjoy this book – I’m glad you could find a copy through Bookmooch. I do have a copy of Bleeding Heart Square and am looking forward to reading that one too.

      • Virginie M says:

        Thanks, Helen for welcoming me here ! Your blog is full of good surprises i.e very attractive books I did not know about and will look forward to put my hands on … which means more expenses on my book budget !But never mind….
        “Bleeding Heart Square” was quite intriguing, I would not say I loved it (as opposed to books such as “The Quincunx”, or “The Magus”, or “Wuthering Heights” or again “Jane Eyre” or “Lady Audley’s Secret” to mention just a few) but I liked it very, very much .
        Have you heard of “Florence and Giles” ? By John Harding ?
        I got it last week in my mailbox and it sounds so “delightful” !!!
        I am glad I found your blog…many thanks to Boof :-D!

        • Helen says:

          I’ve heard a lot of good things about Florence and Giles. I bought a copy a couple of weeks ago but haven’t had time to read it yet. I hope we both enjoy it!

  4. Bear says:

    One of my favourtie things about the R.I.P. challenge is the opportunity to find new books of interest, but also perhaps new bloggers as well. Thanks to you on both counts!

    I love Poe’s short stories, and have a dog-eared and beloved copy to Tales of Imagination in my bookcase. While I admit it was the mention of his name that kept me reading, I was glad to find that he was only an interesting part of a greater tale of intrigue and suspense.

    I am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this work (and thank you for including both the US and Euro titles!) I will be keeping an eye out for your next review as well.

    Happy Reading…

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