Book review: The Scent of Death, Andrew Taylor

This is the story of Edward Savill, a British man, dropped in New York by the American Department to help investigate and settle claims of compensation in the American War of Independence. It is 1778, and Manhattan is in tatters, following the ravages of war. Edward Savill is lodging with Judge Wintour, and his rather mysterious daughter-in-law Arabella. Savill’s first task is to investigate and report on a murder, which seemingly is resolved with an eye-witness account, leading to execution. This historical novel twists and turns through family sagas and deeply held emotions, set against the torrid backdrop of war, where Savill becomes detective in unearthing the past, whilst battling his own future.

Taylor delivers one of the best opening lines of a novel that I’ve read, ever:

‘This is the story of a woman and a city. I saw the city first, shimmering from afar like the new Jerusalem in the setting sun. It was Sunday, 2nd August 1778.’

The language is rich, descriptions are laid out with incredible details, and the speaking manner of the characters all serve to conjure up late 18th century New York in wartime. At times it is like looking at the set of a play, and Taylor achieves what CJ Sansom does for Tudor England.

At the outset, the slightly morose, lonely figure of Edward Savill is almost a pitiful character, so out of place in the setting, yet he grows in stature. The simplicity of his tasks initially, seem to unsettle him, as he searches for truth, desire and answers. The Scent of Death has a ‘slow burn’, and as the relationships deepen, and the tension mounts, it becomes a book that is almost impossible to put down. There is increasing complexity in the motives of the main characters and a deepening of emotions, which makes the reader truly care what happens. It is a master-class in observation and character development, with a well thought out plot.

Tensions come in the developing relationships (and a wish of this reviewer not to give too much away), and some brilliantly observed scenes – muggings, drinking sessions, and the prowling of the shadowy Scarface.

The book climaxes with a kind of pilgrimage to the old family estate, in search of something that Savill isn’t even sure about, where one by one the party are picked off, ending up with the capture of Savill in a truly gripping scene. The images are painted strongly before my eyes now, some weeks after finishing it (and a couple of books in between). That said, I did not see the end coming, until it was upon me. Yet it was resolved in a satisfactory way.

Taylor has written a brilliant book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, or even a good detective story.

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