Taylor, Andrew - 'The Scent of Death'
Edward Savill, a London clerk, lands in Manhattan in the wake of the War of Independence. It's a city fraught with secrets, divided loyalties and double agents, home to a swelling tide of refugees seeking justice from the British crown. It isn't long before Savill is swept up in the city's struggles, trying to solve a murder for which a falsely-accused slave was hanged. Distracted by his host's beautiful daughter-in-law, Arabella, Savill must search under the masks worn by those around him, for the dangerous truth at the city's heart.
There is something wonderfully reassuring about the weight and tactile beauty of this book. It promises long nights curled in a favourite armchair, absorbed in a story by a master storyteller. And it doesn't disappoint.
Taylor is at the height of his powers, weaving a complex set of strands with such skill that the effect is almost effortless. His narrator, Savill, is a convincing observer. Arriving emotionally numb from his long journey away from a difficult marriage to an alien Manhattan, the first human he sees is the floating corpse of a rebel. This introduction to a world-famous city - visceral and unsettling - stays with the reader throughout the story. It reminds us that nothing, and no-one, is quite as it seems.
Taylor's settings are always vivid and here he excels. The shanty-town slums of Canvas Town and the ruin of Trinity Church are especially striking, as is the stifling heat that freezes into a shiver-inducing winter. The chase across the ice, which takes place at the climax of the book, is beautifully depicted; you can hear and feel the treacherous squeak of the ice underfoot.
The cast, too, is among Taylor's best. From the tragic Arabella to the terrifying Juvenal, everyone convinces and compels. Even his off-page cast is haunting, such as the crying child who reminds Savill of his small daughter, much missed in London.
Perhaps Taylor's greatest achievement is in conjuring a cast that feels absolutely authentic to the place and time. It takes a special kind of courage - and honesty - to refuse to impose contemporary morals on a past you're trying to conjure and keep alive. The many slaves who appear in THE SCENT OF DEATH are not pitiable models of the oppressed, and nor does our hero behave like a champion of liberty and equality. Instead, each character rings uniquely true, with the result that the horrendous inequity is starkly shown and felt. You read, curled in that favourite armchair, with an acute sense of what has changed since that time, and what has not.
Sarah Hilary, England
Sarah Hilary is the Bristol-based winner of the Cheshire Prize of Literature 2012, the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. In 2012, she launched Flashbang, a crime writing contest in association with CrimeFest. Sarah's debut novel, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, will be published by Headline in 2014.