More than ten years ago, I was reading a manuscript about the American War of Independence. A detail stuck like a burr: that embankments on the North River served as the last resting place for the corpses of rebel POWs. That’s where this novel began – there and with a trip to New York, much of which was spent walking the streets of downtown Manhattan and looking out over the water that defines its borders. Part of the interest for me was that the setting would allow me to look again the strange history of the relationship between the British and the Americans. The Scent of Death is in no sense a sequel or prequel to The American Boy: but it is a companion novel in several ways; and Mr Noak, one of the characters from the earlier book, appears in The Scent of Death as a relatively young man.
This is a book about loyalty – how sometimes it is no longer a virtue, how in certain situations it’s up for grabs.
Why New York? For most of the War, it was the military and administrative capital of the British Empire in America, a town of 20-30,000 people squeezed onto the southern tip of Manhattan island. So it made the perfect setting for a novel because it showed somewhere we know so well in other guises, New York City, from such a different angle. The germ for The American Boy was very similar in that sense – Poe, such a quintessentially American figure from the Victorian age, seen as an English schoolboy in Jane Austen’s London.
My central character is Edward Savill, an ambitious clerk from the British Government’s American Department. He arrives on a short posting to monitor military relations with the civil population and to assess the claims of refugees. He finds a British city hemmed in by Revolutionary American forces. From Troy to Saigon, history shows that besieged cities are dangerous places. In a moment a man may gain a fortune or lose his life. Yesterday’s loyalty becomes tomorrow’s treason. And a killing may be a murder or a patriotic action – or even both.
Before the start of the American War of Independence, New York was a prosperous port and provincial capital. When Savill arrives, it has been under military government for two years – something that the loyal American civilians hate. Refugees are flooding into the violent, overcrowded city. A flourishing underclass inhabits the fire-damaged ruins known as Canvas Town. Slaves and rebel prisoners-of-war provide much of the labour force.
Savill lodges with the Wintours, a once prominent Loyalist family that has lost more than most. He has come to New York for the sake of his career. He longs for his wife and little daughter at home in England. But the city has a different fate in store for him.
On the day Savill arrives, a man is found murdered in Canvas Town, and his death has unexpected links with his hosts – and, in particular, with the beautiful Mrs Arabella Wintour.
New York in 1778: a grim place to live, but a terrific setting for a crime novel.
The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor is published by Harper Collins