It all began late one night in mid-February 1786, when the secretive Holy Ghost Club met to admit into its ranks a gentleman of high stature and significant means named Frank Oldershaw. Hailing from London, Oldershaw gained entry to Cambridge University and began his studies at its Jerusalem College. Honored to be inducted into the Holy Ghost Club, he anxiously awaited the ceremony date. But on that cold February night, a young woman died, one who had been meant to play a crucial part in the evening’s activities. That same night, one of the club’s members, Philip Whichcote, lost his wife in a tragic drowning.
Back in London, bookseller John Holdsworth also grieves for his drowned wife, and his son. His loss has set him on a downward spiral in his good fortunes. Just as he is about to hit bottom, he is made a two-part offer he can ill afford to refuse. Lady Anne Oldershaw, recently widowed, wishes to donate her deceased husband’s extensive library to Cambridge University. First, however, she must be certain that it is a worthy institution for such a generous bequest. Why choose a down-at-the-heels bookseller? The books are the lure, but the second part of the task is the most important. Lady Anne wants her son Frank to come home. Since the night of the club meeting, he has been in an asylum under the care of a doctor, said to have been driven mad by a ghost. Lady Anne has commissioned Holdsworth to inquire into the matter and clear things up.
Secret clubs have been around for centuries. Thankfully, few are as vile as the Holy Ghost Club. Reserved for young gentlemen exclusively, it introduces its members to society’s most loathsome vices. What they do behind closed doors would more than besmirch the reputation of the university should they become known. It should come as no surprise, then, that someone would eventually get hurt.
Maybe Oldershaw didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Or maybe he did. In either case, the events of that night will forever be linked with his descent into madness. To do Lady Anne’s bidding, Holdsworth sets out to find the cause of Oldershaw’s illness and restore his sanity. He believes that the talk of a ghost in the college gardens, the one that sent Oldershaw to the hospital, must have a rational explanation.
But Holdsworth has his own ghosts. He is still carrying a heavy burden of guilt over the deaths of his wife and boy. This commission might be fortuitous in more than a much-needed monetary reward. Maybe, if Holdsworth can rid Oldershaw of his ghost, he himself can be free again.
Set in the damp and cold winter season, THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS shivers with suspense. The college’s dead gardens and black ponds add to the bleak atmosphere one can picture a ghost preferring. Andrew Taylor takes his readers back to 1786 with astonishing period detail, making this a darkly charming novel best read with all the lights in the house on.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on March 28, 2011