Past Crimes

The rise in popularity and importance of crime fiction set in the past is illustrated by the Crime Writers’ Association’s decision, back in 1999, to create a special Dagger for the best historical mystery novel of each year. The Dagger was named after the late Ellis Peters (the name under which Edith Pargeter earned enduring fame and fortune following the creation of her marvellously conceived monk-sleuth Brother Cadfael) and has become one of the most prestigious awards in the world of crime fiction.

There have been a number of notable winners of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, including Lindsey Davis, C. J. Sansom and Ariana Franklin, but so far, only one author has managed to land the award twice. Andrew Taylor was honoured first in 2001 and then again in 2003, on that occasion for The American Boy — arguably his “breakthrough” novel, which featured the young Edgar Allan Poe and was a “Richard and Judy” choice.

Andrew Taylor’s brand-new novel, The Anatomy of Ghosts, sees him travel back in time once again, this time to the late 18th century. The backdrop on this occasion is Jerusalem College in Cambridge; the college is fictitious, but the university is where Taylor himself studied in the 1970s. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the setting is wonderfully realised; Taylor’s history-mysteries are characteristically authentic in flavour, without being obsessively pedantic in matters of detail. This is surely one of the secrets of success in the field of historical crime: contemporary readers need to find the people and settings credibly of the past while still relevant and interesting today.

The book begins in dramatic fashion, at a meeting of Jerusalem’s mysterious Holy Ghost Society which ends in tragedy and death. But precisely what happened, and what were its consequences, remain unclear until near the end of the story. The main protagonist John Holdsworth, has suffered a double bereavement, with the accidental drowning of his young son being followed by his wife’s suicide. Holdsworth nurses a bitter resentment of those who encourage the credulous to believe in ghosts, and his writing on the subject attracts the attention of a wealthy old lady, who hires him to undertake a commission on her behalf at Jerusalem College. There he becomes embroiled in college conspiracies and politics, as well as a murder mystery. He also finds himself attracted to the wife of the dying Master of Jerusalem, and Taylor’s delicate portrayal of that developing relationship is a reminder of the breadth of his literary skills.

Nowadays there is an abundance of talented writers of historical crime fiction, but Taylor stands out, along with Peter Lovesey, as not only gifted, but extraordinarily versatile. Lovesey began his career with books featuring the Victorian policeman Sergeant Cribb, and has also written about Edward, Prince of Wales, the Crippen case, Hollywood in the Keystone era, and London during the Second World War (in a novel of psychological suspense, On the Edge, which deserves to be better known). His work is unfailingly enjoyable.

The same can be said of Taylor’s writing. Despite being very prolific (among many other things, he wrote five books under a pseudonym based on the popular television series Bergerac) he has maintained a consistently high standard of quality, and last year he was a worthy winner of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger. Among his finest achievements are the Roth Trilogy, which begins in the present-day and then goes back in time to lay bare the making of a sociopath. His series set in the 1950s and located in Lydmouth, a fictional town in the Border country, offers a fascinating portrait of a society that seems rather repressed, and certainly very different from our own, and yet which is still within living memory to quite a number of readers. His Bleeding Heart Square, set in the 1930s, was one of the best novels I read in 2008 and his new book will, I am sure, appeal to all fans of past crimes.

(This article first appeared at