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  • Ninay Desai

The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor

Award-winning author, Andrew Taylor sets this historical crime novel, The Scent of Death, in the year 1778 in British-controlled New York during the American War of Independence. His protagonist, Edward Savill is an English clerk from the American Department in London arriving in New York to aid Americans loyal to the Crown seeking reparations. However, this is a country at war and there are many who are settling personal scores in the midst of civil unrest and strife.

On his first day in New York, Savill is taken to the murder site of a Mr Pickett. His murder raises some intriguing questions which are temporarily and conveniently answered when the testimony of an informer concludes in a black man being hanged for the murder. Yet, there are some loose ends.  

On a coffee table lies a copy of The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor next to a small Christmas tree and strawberry shake with a white straw. Photo by Ninay Desai.

Thanks to the connections of his superior at the Department whose niece he is married to, Edward Savill lodges with the Wintours, a family of American aristocrats with their fortunes in decline. The patriarch of the Wintours is a former judge. His wife suffers from ill-health and has all but withdrawn from public life. Their only son Captain Wintour is missing, presumed dead. Their daughter-in-law, Arabella hails from old money and is enigmatic possessing the kind of beauty that enchants all that come in contact with it.

The majority of the characters we encounter are British loyalists and cling to the notion of an eventual victory for King George III. In the kind of unwritten dramatic irony possible only in historical fiction, the reader is well aware that this is not how the cookie will crumble, giving the plot an underlying tension.

The New York of 1778 depicted in The Scent of Death is a melting pot for loyalists, rebels, slaves, financial and moral decay. It is a place rife with murder, persecution, betrayal, looting, shadowy attackers and buried secrets. It’s tough to know what or whom to trust.

Taylor’s The Scent of Death is a slow burner yet keeps one riveted with plot twists and a sense of foreboding. The writing is atmospheric and makes the scenes come alive. Andrew Taylor injects enough historical detail to illuminate the stage but not so much as to distract from his story or slow down the pace.

The landscape of the novel is populated with grey characters – not the kind that are likely to have you rooting for them. Most of the characters aren’t what they appear to be. Their motivations are complex and layered and it’s not easy to figure them out. Arabella is a prime example. Savill and through him, the reader, hardly knows anything about her. What little we know is what she chooses to reveal. It’s like seeing a mirage in the desert. And yet she holds sway over the narrator and the novel. Both her presence and absence are note-worthy. This air of hidden motivations and stealthy machinations permeates every chapter of the book.

Taylor emphasises the unsteadiness of the ground his protagonist stands on by using the first person narrative. As a result, Savill doesn’t have access to the thoughts and feelings of anyone other than himself. Neither does the reader. This way the sense of unease, shifting loyalties and other characters’ personal agendas feel more visceral. In contrast, using a third person omniscient or even a third person limited point of view would have provided a more distant perspective. Savill’s first person narration adds to the sense of the reader meandering alongside the protagonist in a maze of hidden truths and misdirection.

The themes of race, justice, revenge and loyalty are woven into the plot along with the imagery of light and dark. Taylor writes,

“For some people, loyalty is a commodity.”

This applies to the ties of loyalty between American subjects and their British rulers across the ocean or to the loyalty that the rebels feel towards their countrymen and their revolution to throw off the yoke of British rule. Family members having divided loyalties, on the basis of their political moorings or perhaps more practical considerations, also plays out. Taylor slips in a historical reference of just such a split between Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the American Revolution and his son, William Franklin, a British loyalist who was the Royal Governor of New Jersey.

The Scent of Death opens with the lines,

“This is the story of a woman and a city. I saw the city first.”

Perhaps Taylor meant for them to be metaphors for each other with their mirroring states of ruin, ripped loyalties and multiple suitors.

Ultimately, the novel paints a convincing portrait of the ravages of war and how, in the midst of a conflict, there are no heroes. Each side partakes in its share of cruelty, plunder and terror. Historical fiction like The Scent of Death strips back the patina of one-sided history that most of us take for granted – one that is painted in the colours of the victors and viewed with a false sense of inevitability that hindsight engenders. I enjoyed this novel enough to add Andrew Taylor’s much-acclaimed novel, The American Boy to my reading list.

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Well written without giving away much of the plot.

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai

Thank you for reading and commenting. I abhor spoilers so I'm glad I didn't spoil the novel for anyone.

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