Friday, 22 February 2013

Review: The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor

Hardback cover of The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor

It must be said that the realm of historical murder fiction is not one I usually delve into, but The Scent of Death, set around the American War of Independence, caught my eye. However, to lump it under such labels would be an injustice to Andrew Taylor's writing. As I had expected either a history lesson with an ill-placed fiction plot or another tedious murder mystery with a bit of history to add a spin, I was surprised to find a wonderful story with a wealth of character and imagination. To explain, rather than a straight murder mystery The Scent of Death is a wonderful story of characters, murder and history not ofen found so well-written in one book.

Plot summary: Edward Savill, a London clerk from the American Department, is assigned to New York to investigate the claims of dispossessed loyalists caught on the wrong side of the American War of Independence.

Surrounded by its enemies, British Manhattan is a melting pot of soldiers, profiteers, double agents and a swelling tide of refugees seeking justice from the Crown. Savill lodges with the respected Wintour family: the old Judge, his ailing wife and their enigmatic daughter-in-law Arabella. The family lives in limbo, praying for the safe return of Jack Wintour, Arabella's husband, who is missing behind rebel lines.
The discovery of a body in the notorious slums of Canvas Town thrusts Savill into a murder inquiry. But in the escalating violence of a desperate city, why does one death matter? Because the secret this killing hides could be the key to power for whoever uncovers it…

The story is planned and structured brilliantly. I know that’s not something usually praised in a book, but the mix of character sub-plots, historical events and murder flow beautifully. I never felt like I was reading too much of one theme but instead felt drawn into the world of New York in 1778 and the life of Edward Savill. The aristocratic parties, the conduct of a gentleman and the impending war on the door step; these elements are so well done that they are a story within themselves. That’s not to say the murder mystery side is left wanting however; it is in fact where I feel the strength of the structure shines.

The all important breadcrumbs of clues that lead us to the conclusion never felt like too much or too little. A poorly written mystery has you running around telling anyone who’ll listen that you’ve worked out the end so that when the ’Ha! I told you that was it!’ proclamation comes, it has confirmation (whether they cared or not). Equally there are other books done so badly that the only mystery is where the missing fifty pages of build-up and explanation are. The Scent of Death happily hits the middle ground, where you’ll find some events happen as you had expected whilst others surprise you.

I’ve glanced at a few other reviews and found some that question its length and pace. However, this isn’t a Da Vinci Code race through the streets to catch the murderer. It’s a lived-in book; the point isn't to solve the mystery but to enjoy the characters and to experience in a light and uncondescending way a glimpse into 18th Century America as it finds independence and the toll that it takes on society.

I really was impressed by The Scent of Death, both for its story and its writing. It really feels like a book written by an author at his prime. The characters, the mystery, the structure, the prose... they all work together so wonderfully that you can't put it down even at 2am. I just had to finish it! Now don’t get me wrong- it isn’t Crime and Punishment but it's more than just another Da Vinci Code type book. Even if its not your usual read or it never has been, pick up The Scent of Death this year... I’m glad I did.

Visit Andrew Taylor's blog here.


  1. Ooh, I want! Even though I liked it, one of the problems that I had with The Lincoln Conspiracy - that kind of alternated between historical fiction and mystery but didn't quite manage to blend them properly. This sounds perfect! On my wishlist, without a doubt!

    I bought The Yard recently which I hadn't really heard of until I saw it in Waterstones but that's a kind of post-Ripper crime fiction type thing that I'm hoping will also be a moody historical fiction. It'll probably more slashy but I can live with that :)

  2. I might not write this one off then. I think loads of us got this randomly and I wasn't sure about it. Not rushing to read but won't give it away just yet.


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