In his latest, Taylor (The Anatomy of Ghosts, 2011, etc.) conjures up crime fiction from an unlikely setting—rough-and-tumble New York City during the American Revolution.
It’s 1778, and Edward Savill has been dispatched to the rebellious Colonies as representative of the king’s government to "deal with Loyalist claims for compensation." He's also been told of "the importance of gathering first-hand intelligence." The book's first half is mostly scene and circumstance, and Taylor gets the setting down perfectly: quill pens and reading by candlelight, muddy streets and the ugly stink of offal, including two corpses that greet Savill—one floating in the river (mere atmosphere) and the other in Canvas Town, "home to the worst elements in New York." Taylor introduces realistic characters, ranging from slippery Townley, a supposedly loyal businessman, to Maj. Marryot, army link between military and civilian police. There’s also the Loyalist family hosting Savill, the Wintours: the patriarch judge; his son Jack, rebel prisoner; Jack’s wife, the "once seen…never forgotten" Arabella; plus references to a badly scarred slave Savill too late learns isn’t as dead as he should be. Savill’s soon investigating the Canvas Town death, the victim having ties to the Wintours. With a bit of subversive sexual tension between Savill and Arabella, Taylor’s plot meanders along before kicking into overdrive when Savill and Jack, "no scholar, certainly, but manly and affectionate," set out to "the Debatable Ground"—rebel-plagued territory outside the city. Jack’s seeking a "box of curiosities" at Mt. George, his wife’s family estate. Therein may be the key to the restoration of the Wintour fortune. What follows are stabbings, torture and murder, much alcohol downed, appalling revelations about slavery and class, and a sin that’s never explained.
"[A]n American...is not an
Englishman any more. He is become quite a different animal" and capable of
murder most foul.