By Wendy Smith
Saturday, February 12, 2011; C02
Andrew Taylor's brooding thriller opens with two tantalizing vignettes. First, a distraught, unnamed woman flees through the dark streets of Cambridge, England, fumbling for the key to a garden refuge. Then the scene shifts to a blasphemous "Last Supper" on the evening of Feb. 16, 1786, at which drunken members of the Holy Ghost Club welcome a fledgling "Apostle," who eagerly awaits his initiation rite: the deflowering of a virgin. But unfortunately, the virgin chokes to death on a nut before they can begin. "I suppose he would not take the girl like that?" wonders Mrs. Phear, hostess to the Apostles' revels. He's not that drunk, replies Philip Whichcote, the club's president. As they ponder their options in a secluded room with the corpse, the new recruit, Frank Oldershaw, stumbles in, demanding, "Where have you hidden my sweet little virgin?"
With the deftness of a veteran storyteller (he's the author of dozens of crime novels), Taylor swiftly establishes a setting of corrupt privilege. Oldershaw, like most of the Apostles, is a wealthy student in Jerusalem College at Cambridge University. Whichcote, his university days behind him but too gentlemanly to actually work, makes a precarious living fleecing the Apostles at cards and providing the louche entertainments they consider their due as English aristocrats.
Whichcote is under considerable pressure in the wake of the club's fatal supper. The virgin's dead body is spirited away without incident, but his wife, Sylvia, is discovered drowned in Jerusalem's Long Pond the next morning. (She was, we realize, the woman fleeing in the opening pages.)
Into this fraught situation arrives John Holdsworth, a widower more mournful and guilt-ridden than the ice-cold Whichcote. Oldershaw suffered a nervous breakdown after the aborted initiation ceremony, and his mother, Lady Anne, has hired Holdsworth to find out why. Lady Anne knows nothing about the Apostles and attributes her son's collapse to his belief that he has seen the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote. It turns out she's read "The Anatomy of Ghosts," a tract Holdsworth wrote to debunk the claims of spiritualism, and she hopes he can convince her anxious son that the apparition was a delusion.
The plot gears clank loudly in this setup, and it occasionally seems that Taylor must justify his title by having practically everyone in the novel haunted by otherworldly presences. The story's not-terribly-compelling metaphysical undercurrents are far less interesting than the large cast of vigorously imagined period characters.
Holdsworth delves into the questions of what happened to the virgin's corpse, how Sylvia Whichcote ended up in Long Pond, and what drove Frank Oldershaw crazy - if he really is crazy. These questions prove to be related, of course, but once we're past the contrived setup, Taylor makes plausible the intricate interconnections that unravel to expose a diseased society and some very nasty people.
Although the Holy Ghost Club is fictional, in calling its members "Apostles," Taylor surely intends readers to recall the real-life Cambridge society of that name, whose 20th-century members included several Soviet spies who escaped detection for years due to the British establishment's inclination to protect its own. The elite was more entrenched in the oppressive 18th-century world that Taylor evokes so atmospherically; all Holdsworth can do with the killer is to promise spectral visitations from the victim - not much retribution from someone who has declared he doesn't believe in ghosts. And not much consolation for readers who like their endings tidy and comforting. Those made of sterner stuff will relish Taylor's dark and gripping tale.
Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for The Post.
THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS
By Andrew Taylor
412 pp. $24.99