The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When London clerk Edward Savill sails into New York harbor on August 2, 1778, heh is not impressed. “I confess I expected a finer prospect,” he comments to a sailor keeping him company, “Something more like a city.” The British are occupying the city and like his cabin mate, Mr. Noak—an American who has been working in London for years—Savill is traveling on business. England and the United States may be at war, but war is good for business and opportunities for getting rich are everywhere. And in this atmosphere, everything is for sale, as Noak notes cynically. “For some people, sir, loyalty is a commodity, and like any other may be bought and sold.”
And soon enough, Savill finds out that other commodities can be bought and sold in New York as well—like the purchase of a murder, for example. Andrew Taylor throws his readers right into the thick of things as Savill disembarks and is met by Townley, who fills him in on the gossip about the Loyalist judge who’ll be housing Savill—he has a very comely daughter-in-law, Townley confides—and then treats him to a “tolerable” dinner. But that dinner is interrupted by news of a murder, and soon enough our narrator and Townley are studying the corpse of a man who may or may not have had something to do with the devastating fire that was set not long before. And there’s just one clue—a single die that Savill finds.
Who the man is, how he ended up dead and what (if anything) it has to do with the war is the main thread of the story but the real pleasure is just in how beautifully the writer has rendered his 18th century world. There is intrigue—political, national, business, sexual, racial, and social. Taylor whips all this together with period language that feels contemporary and wonderful characters. The author has won many awards for his historical mysteries and this book is such a well-crafted story that any reader would have voted him those awards themselves. (There’s an author’s afterward that is a nifty explanation of the whole “Loyalist” dilemma and it’s worth reading all by itself.) This was my introduction to Taylor’s work. I can’t wait to read his other books.
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