The Scent of Death, by Andrew Taylor


Author: Andrew Taylor
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780007213535
Genre: Historical | Murder-Mystery


New York is a city of secrets, profiteers, loyalists and double agent, where loyalty is a commodity like any other. Manhattan in 1778, during in the American War of Independence, is surrounded by the French fleet and the rebel armies, and packed with refugees seeking justice from the British crown.

Edward Savill is sent from London to investigate the claims of dispossessed loyalists. No sooner does he land than he becomes embroiled in the case of a gentleman murdered in the city’s notorious Canvas Town.

Lodging with the respected Wintour family, Savill senses the mystery deepening. Judge Wintour’s beautiful daughter-in-law, Arabella, hides a tragedy in her past, while his son plans a dangerous mission into enemy territory. And what of Mr Noak, the enigmatic clerk seemingly bent on a dubious course of his own?


While Andrew Taylor beautifully evokes the stifled atmosphere of New York City under siege during the War of Independence (also referred to as the ‘Revolutionary War’). And gives us a plausible enough character in the guise of Mr. Edward Savill, a clerk for the American Office based in London. The over-all arcing storyline could have done with some judicious (if not) ruthless editing to bring the unwieldily mess into a more manageable read. As it stands, THE SCENT OF DEATH meanders all over the place, so much so, that at one point I had to abandon my reading.

It wasn’t so much from boredom, as tedium from an over abundance of exposition and story lines that could have, IMHO, been a little more succinct and to the point. It’s one thing to describe a place, in detail, and evoke a sense of being there, and then, quite another to drown the reader in minutia.

That isn’t to say I didn’t, in the end, enjoy this historically-set mystery, just that I would have liked to have arrived at its conclusion a lot faster than I did. Especially as at the latter stages of Savill’s journey of discovery, it feels like the author suddenly rushed the ending, by comparison.

That said, the characters were, for the most part, well-drawn and delineated. As was the setting, from the gritty, realistic brutality of Canvas Town, to the rest of the city struggling through a long drawn out war, and shortages.

Much of the intrigue and mystery of the novel is centred around the Wintour family Savill is lodging with, rather than the war itself. But this too suffers from a meandering narrative that fails to deliver any real surprises at the book’s end.

All in all, while THE SCENT OF DEATH may be well researched and accurate in certain detail, it suffers from glacial pacing and unsympathetic characters who lacked any emotional depth to make the mystery worth bothering about. Which is sad, because I thoroughly enjoyed reading Taylor’s THE ASHES OF LONDON.