Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Book Review: 'The Scent of Death' by Andrew Taylor
Andrew Taylor's "The Scent of Death" stands out because of its setting and unusual perspective. The story opens in New York in 1778, and is told largely from the point of view of British loyalists. Some Americans may not be familiar with the hardships that New Yorkers who continued to support Great Britain endured. The winters in the city were unusually harsh, provisions and fuel were scarce, and overcrowding, lawlessness, and chaos made life precarious. As Taylor points out in his afterword, the British government did not have the stomach for a prolonged war of attrition. Once they realized that a decisive victory was not forthcoming, their enthusiasm for prolonging the conflict waned.
Taylor focuses on Edward Savill, a clerk from the America department, who is sent from England to New York to investigate the claims of loyalists who suffered as a result of their fealty to His Majesty's government. Savill stays with Judge and Mrs. Winotaur, who live in the home of their daughter-in-law, Arabella. The members of the household await word from Arabella's husband, Captain John Winotaur, who has not yet returned from the field of battle. Savill, the pleasant but naïve narrator, observes and comments upon a series of troubling events. A man is found brutally murdered. More violence follows, including an assault on Edward himself. The hero's stay in New York drags on for over a year, and the convoluted plot incorporates elements of conspiracy, intrigue, long-buried secrets, and dangerous romantic liaisons.
In addition, Taylor depicts the blatant prejudice of some white masters, both male and female, who treat their slaves as appendages, ordering their male and female servants to do their bidding while making bigoted remarks about their character and morals. This book is, alas, too long and meandering, and the conclusion borders on the chaotic. Against the backdrop of a beleaguered city, Taylor demonstrates that, in times of conflict, we see people at their most heroic and barbaric. As one character states, with some justification, "Loyalty is a commodity. It can be bought and sold." Although the author keeps us invested in the outcome, he should have moved his narrative along at a faster clip. "The Scent of Death" is more interesting for its colorful history than its tangled mystery.
Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right