Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“The point is, sir, however loyal an American may be, he is not a Englishman any more. He is become quite a different animal.”
Mr. Edward Savill of the British government’s American Department arrives in New York in the summer of 1778, in the midst of the American Revolution. New York is held by the British, and Mr. Savill is charged with documenting the claims of Loyalists who have been turned out of their homes by American rebels. Manhattan is under military rule, and overflowing with refugees from the war, obliging Mr. Savill to billet with the Wintour family, including Judge Wintour, his wife, and their daughter-in-law, Mrs. Arabella. Immediately upon his arrival, Mr. Savill is drawn into the investigation of the murder of Mr. Roger Pickett, an American of questionable loyalties whose body is found in the slums of Canvas Town. What at first seems a simple case of robbery comes back to haunt Mr. Savill’s tenure in New York when Mr. Pickett’s influential brother-in-law demands that the investigation be reopened.
Veteran mystery writer Andrew Taylor first published The Scent of Death in Britain in 2013. The historical thriller earned Taylor his third Crime Writer’s Association Ellis Peters Historical Award, and is now being published in the United States by Harper Collins. Taylor has a beautiful command of the language and culture of the period, and a rich knowledge of history that brings Revolutionary-era New York to life in vivid detail, although his British perspective will undoubtedly feel alien to many American readers, who will be seeing the War of Independence from the other side.
If you don’t enjoy gathering up clues or basking in period detail, the first two hundred pages of The Scent of Death are rather tedious. Taylor abides by the rules of fair play, so those who like puzzling out whodunit before the protagonist will find plenty to keep them thinking and theorizing. However it takes a great deal of patience to get through the opening acts, in part because Mr. Savill is not a particularly good or eager detective. He is reluctant to get involved in affairs beyond the scope of his post, and concerned by Mr. Pickett’s connection, however slight, to the Wintour family, whose members he has become attached to during his stay. If you are good at solving murder mysteries, you may be impatient for Mr. Savill to catch up to you.
In addition to a slow start, The Scent of Death is hard going at first due to Taylor’s stereotypical characterizations. His Englishmen come across as stuffy, pretentious, insufferable bores, and his Americans seem to be uncultured, racist boors. On meeting Mrs. Arabella Wintour, a noted American beauty, Mr, Savill has the ungenerous thought that the Americans “perhaps judged a lady’s personal attractions by lower standards than we did.” These kinds of priggish judgements make Mr. Savill unpleasant company. What is interesting about this characterization is the way Taylor is able to use it to illicit the sympathies of the modern reader; we are brought to like Mr. Savill in spite of his priggishness because he treats the black characters and slaves much better than his American counterparts. His sympathy for the runaway slave Virgil isn’t much, and it doesn’t save the slave from hanging, but it is difficult not to like Mr. Savill when he prevents a man from selling his wife’s maid to pay a gambling debt. He may be a reluctant hero, but he eventually finds his feet. Similarly, despite their racism, we are drawn to the American characters precisely because they are so much more friendly and accessible than the English ones. Ultimately, Taylor seems to be playing with the stereotypes rather than leaning on them, and using the contradictions to confound our ability to judge characters and assess their guilt.
The plot arc of The Scent of Death deals in extremes, starting with a ponderous introduction, and coming to a frenetic and luridly sensational ending in the last seventy pages. The satisfaction of piecing together the many clues is somewhat diminished by the melodramatic final reveal, which has none of the delicate balance Taylor pulls off in playing the British and American interests against one another. The Scarface plot comes neatly together, but Taylor’s need to add one final twist puts the ending a little over the top. The Scent of Death has Taylor’s strong command of the language and vivid historical setting to recommend it, but the slow pacing and unsatisfactory conclusion weigh heavily against those considerations.