The historical crime novel is a sub-genre and a tricky one. The writer has to satisfy, as it were, two separate audiences. Devotees of historical novels require a convincing creation of period with appropriate physical descriptions, language and sufficient familiar points of reference. Characters should behave and sound like those of the period but should have at least some touches of modern sensibility to make them interesting. Readers of crime novels, increasingly demanding social and political content, require at the very least action and a compelling mystery.
C J Sansom’s series about Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake scores highly on these counts and so do the recent novels of Andrew Taylor. His 2003 book The American Boy, a Wilkie Collinsesque tale of villainy in Victorian London, was a best-seller. The Scent of Death is set in New York at the time of the American War of Independence and is the equal of, if not better than, the earlier book. Taylor has acquired a solid reputation as a crime novelist and looks likely to carry his readers from that field into his historical fiction.
In The Scent of Death Edward Saville travels to New York in 1776 to be the eyes and ears of British officialdom in the city that is holding out against George Washington and the push for independence by the 13 American colonies. His major task is to help British loyalists arriving in the city from other parts of the country.
Saville finds New York to be ‘a paltry, provincial sort of place’. He is appalled by its smells, that are as bad as London’s if not worse. There is a constant threat of fire in the largely wooden buildings and of cholera in the overcrowded poor areas. Canvas Town, in particular, is a den of thieves, runaway slaves and deserters. The scene is set for a very dark story – insecure people in an insecure place.
Naturally, there is a back story – Saville’s reluctant patron is his wife’s uncle. His marriage is unhappy with a daughter, Lizzie, being its only positive feature. The uncle dislikes his niece and acts only out of duty. So Saville arrives in New York troubled and troubles pile in on him from the start – crippling seasickness, a rotting body pulled from the harbour as his ship arrives, a murder committed on one of the kinds of people he is obliged to help.
One of the traps for the historical novelist is the slavish use of archaic words and expressions. Taylor avoids this by being exact but sparing with these devices and time markers – clothes confer social status, sedan chairs transport healthy gentlemen short distances, slaves are ordered about with no regard to their circumstances or feelings.
Another pitfall is including too much historical detail, which impedes the flow of the narrative. Again Taylor’s story, rich in incident, historical events and political observations, has the right deft touch. I knew virtually nothing but the outline of the American Revolution; now I feel I have better grasp on it but I’m still far short of exhaustive knowledge.
Above all, Taylor’s characters live – a resourceful civil servant acutely conscious of his middling rank, several duplicitous plotters, slaves friendly and hostile, and a sufficiently alluring female who is not what she seems to be. Impressively, characters rub each other the wrong way as people do in life until the friction produces real heat.
The book has a strange physicality: in some way the buildings, never described in tedious detail, appear real and are welcoming or threatening as required. The weather, oppressively hot or bitterly cold, affects behaviour and seems to communicate itself directly to the reader, especially the ice sheets on the frozen rivers where climactic action is played out.
A complete absence of sentimentality, a hard-edged depiction of the mindlessness of war and of the corrosive effects of greed and love make The Scent of Death an impressive novel.
Andrew Taylor The Scent of Death HarperCollins 2013 PB 516pp $19.99
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