I’ve been looking forward to reading this book, having enjoyed some of Andrew Taylor’s previous novels, including The American Boy (An Unpardonable Crime in the US), so I was pleased to find that The Scent of Death was a similar type of historical mystery, though set in a different time and place.
The story begins in 1778, during the American War of Independence. Our narrator, Edward Savill, is an English clerk who has been sent to Manhattan (an area still under British rule at that time) to investigate the compensation claims of Loyalists who have been dispossessed of their property. Before Savill’s ship even arrives in the port, he sees a dead body being lifted out of the water. Soon another body is discovered – the body of Mr Pickett, a man who has connections with the Wintours, the family Savill will be staying with during his time in New York.
While Savill worries about the people he has left behind in England – his cold, distant wife and his beloved daughter – he also finds himself becoming embroiled in the lives of the Wintour family. As he gets to know Judge Wintour, his invalid wife and his beautiful daughter-in-law Arabella, whose husband is missing in action after the Battle of Saratoga, he starts to suspect they are covering up some secrets. Who killed Mr Pickett and why? Whose is the child Savill hears crying in the night? And what is the mysterious ‘box of curiosities’ he has heard so much about?
One of the things I like about Andrew Taylor’s historical novels is that he makes a real effort to use language appropriate to the time period throughout both the dialogue and the narration. I read a lot of historical fiction and there are a surprising number of authors who make no attempt to do this at all; there are very few who do it as convincingly as Taylor. He doesn’t use any jarring modern words or phrases and it all adds to the atmosphere and authenticity of the story, so that I could almost believe Edward Savill really was an 18th century English gentleman narrating his adventures to us. Remembering that this novel is set in the 1770s, we are also given a range of different opinions on slavery rather than the author just projecting 21st century views onto all of his characters, which would have been unrealistic.
As with Taylor’s other novels, you can never be sure which characters can and can’t be trusted. From Mr Townley and his clerk, Mr Noak, who nursed Savill through his seasickness on the long voyage from England, to the enigmatic Arabella Wintour herself, some of these people turn out to be friends and others enemies. I didn’t actually like any of them apart from Savill himself, but that wasn’t a problem at all – I’m sure we weren’t supposed to like them and were intended instead to get a feel for the hostility and suspicion Savill encountered everywhere he went.
The vivid, atmospheric settings are another strong point of Taylor’s novels. I don’t have much knowledge of the American Revolutionary War and Taylor does such a great job of portraying life in New York during this period: the variety of different people, including soldiers, spies, refugees and slaves, who had made the city their home; the overwhelming heat of summer and the intense cold of winter; and all the danger and intrigue of a city at war. Savill’s investigations take him into the heart of Canvas Town, an area of slums where many of the city’s criminal gangs have settled after it was destroyed by fire, and also away from New York, to the ruins of Arabella’s family plantation, Mount George.
But this was not a perfect book: while parts of it were exciting and absorbing (especially Savill’s journey into the dangerous, lawless ‘Debatable Ground’) and the short chapters made it easy to keep reading, the story moved forward very slowly and at almost 500 pages it felt too long – although admittedly it would be hard to see what could have been taken out. I did enjoy it, though, and while I did come close to solving the mystery, there were still some surprises and plot twists towards the end of the book. So, this was not my favourite Andrew Taylor book and unlike The American Boy will not be one of my books of the year, but it was definitely still worth reading and I hope it’s true that we are going to meet Edward Savill again in a future novel.