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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The American Boy
(An Unpardonable Crime)

Andrew Taylor

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase An Unpardonable Crime

Title: The American Boy
Author: Andrew Taylor
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 485 pages
Availability: An Unpardonable Crime - US
The American Boy - UK
The American Boy - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid and ultimately satisfying imitation 19th-century thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 7/8/2004 Elena Seymenliyska
The Independent A 21/7/2003 Jane Jakeman
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/4/2004 Frederick Busch
The Spectator . 2/7/2003 Michael Carlson
Sunday Telegraph A 3/8/2003 Will Cohu
The Times A+ 19/7/2003 Andrew Rosenheim
TLS . 25/7/2003 Patricia Craig
The Washington Post A 28/3/2004 Maureen Corrigan

  Review Consensus:

  Enjoyed it -- some immensely

  From the Reviews:
  • "At times, the plot (which involves a British banking firm and its illegal arms trade in America) gets a little too convoluted, and Taylor's habit of ending each short chapter on a cliffhanger a little too melodramatic. But that should not deter aficionados of the genre." - Elena Seymenliyska, The Guardian

  • "The main elements are traditional 19th-century structures, as explored by Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Yet Taylor's book is not pastiche; he does not fall into the trap of trying to write like a Victorian author. (...) Taylor's deeply absorbing and beautifully-written book is a fitting tribute to the founding father of crime fiction." - Jane Jakeman, The Independent

  • "There are a lot of period details, but not much sense of what they had to do with being alive in the period. The investigation is not of the novel as a form or of Poe the writer. The details further a crime story and the novel remains no more than that." - Frederick Busch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "So far, so Regency, and Taylor, who is a successful and subtle crime novelist, works a delicate and difficult game successfully. (...) It is as if Taylor has used the great master of the bizarre as both starting- and finishing- point, but in between created a period piece with its own unique voice. The result should satisfy those drawn to the fictions of the 19th century, or Poe, or indeed to crime writing at its most creative." - Michael Carlson, The Spectator

  • "Shield is an excellent narrator, intelligent without being all-knowing, and never so passive as to be boring. Taylor gives him a brisk but sensitive voice and an immaculate sense of period detail and manners. (...) Indeed, sir, this is in many ways a most artful and delightful book, that will both amuse and chill, and it will have you desperate to search out a quiet corner in which to continue your acquaintance with it." - Will Cohu, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The attention to period detail is both loving and minute, yet it never overwhelms the story. There are many characters in The American Boy, but they are so evocatively drawn that they are all distinctive -- especially Carswall, a magnificent villain on a Maxwell scale, and the marvellously named Salutation Harmwell. (...) (H)e has transcended any limitations of genre in this novel, for it is a wonderful book, richly composed and beautifully written, an enthralling read from start to finish." - Andrew Rosenheim, The Times

  • "Taylor takes account of both a Georgian formality and a pre-Victorian laxity in social and sexual matters; he is adept at historical re-creation, and allows a heady decor to work in his favour by having his mysteries come wrapped around by a creepy London fog or embedded picturesquely in a Gloucestershire snowdrift." - Patricia Craig, Times Literary

  • "Certainly some of the huge pleasure of reading An Unpardonable Crime derives from clutching at all the literary allusions flying about. (...) An Unpardonable Crime is much more, however, than the sum of its "borrowed" parts. This is a mystery that creates its own vividly unsettling world." - Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The American Boy is set in the early 19th century, the bulk of it narrated by Thomas Shield and describing events from 1819 and 1820. The American boy of the title is no less than a young Edgar Allan Poe -- a figure of significance in the novel (vital to several of its turning points) but hardly ever truly central. It is the Wavenhoe family and its two main branches, the Frants and the Carswalls, that stands at the centre, with Thomas Shield drawn into the goings-on as into a whirlpool he can't escape.
       Shield's account begins harmlessly enough: he takes a position as a junior usher at a school near London run by a Reverend Bransby. He's fortunate to get the position: he couldn't complete his studies at Cambridge after his father died, left his last teaching position "without a reference", and spent some time as a confirmed lunatic (shaken by his war experiences at Waterloo). Nevertheless, he's a decent and otherwise qualified man and Bransby is willing to try him out.
       Among the students already at the establishment is Edgar Allan -- orphaned (Shield also no longer has either mother or father) and being raised by the Allans, who moved to England from America. It is, however, another student who plays a larger role: Charles Frant -- the sight of whose mother, Sophia, preparing to enrol the child, is what Shield begins his account with.
       Charles and Edgar become fast friends. Shield is sent to bring them back to school and bring them home on several occasions, making himself of use to the Frants and Carswalls and Allans and allowing him a glimpse of their world and some of their doings.
       Henry Frant, Charles' father, is a partner of Wavenhoe's Bank -- a renowned establishment but, as Shield soon learns, one about which there has been some gossip recently. There's also Stephen Carswall, Sophia's cousin, who also has connexions to the bank. They're both harsh masters, but Shield finds at least one redeeming quality in being called into their company; he is particularly drawn to the women around them, Henry's wife Sophia and Carswall's bastard child Flora.
       Wavenhoe's Bank fails, destroying the reputation of Henry Frant (but not pulling down Carswall with it). However, before he faces complete public humiliation and a trial he gets himself murdered -- or so it seems: the body is so badly mutilated that Shield, for one, can't positively identify it. And soon enough there are other indications that Frant may well be alive.
       The Frant's disgrace throws Sophia and Charles at Carswell's mercy, as they are now completely dependent on him. Though not as obviously brutal as Frant he too is a cruel soul, and Shield is bothered by Sophia, especially, being in his clutches. Soon enough Shield has even more reason to despise (and fear) Carswell, as events unfold forcing him to leave his teaching position and hide out in much humbler circumstances in London. But he can't escape the goings-on around Frant's murder and he is drawn back into the complicated affair.

       The American Boy is a thriller of the Wilkie Collins sort, with murder, family secrets, wealthy men who behave rather badly, and many sinister occurrences. There are man-traps and smelly ice houses, dark nights, alcoholic over-consumption, an imposing negro from America, public school floggings and schoolboy follies, mistaken identity (Charles and Edgar Allan bear a remarkable likeness to one another ...), lust (though very little sex), strangers following and accosting characters, a coffin-ride, a parrot whose distinctive warning is repeatedly heard, missing fingers and rings and money, a dubious deathbed codicil to a will, and much more (including, near the end, one slightly too convenient deus ex machina that is life- (or at least digit-) saving). Taylor weaves a fine story out of it all: this is much like one of those 19th-century novels, crammed with detail and action and complicated family, financial, and legal affairs, enjoyably layered and then neatly undone.
       Taylor is particularly good at presenting the class differences and issues: Shield is hardly taken seriously by Frant or Carswell, seen (if he is seen at all) as barely more than a servant (albeit an occasionally useful one). Shield's interest in Sophia and Flora is also complicated by the differences in class and expectations. Moving between poor, inner London, the city residences of the wealthy, and the countryside Taylor also offers a rich, convincing picture of the England of that time; some of his best details are in the atmospheric evocations of these scenes (and some of the characters that populate these divergent worlds).
       This is also a novel that throws Old World against New: it is American speculations that played a role in the complications at Wavenhoe's Bank, and several Americans beside the Allans are also involved in the goings-on -- not the least of whom is David Poe, Edgar's father who, in this story at least, turns out not to have died and has a hand in much of what happens.
       Shield's romancing is frustrated by his circumstances, and the expectations of the ladies he is interested in. At least his (and others') yearnings are addressed more directly and forthrightly by Taylor than the 19th-century authors he patterns himself after here. There are a few other modern touches, including a somewhat abrupt end to Shield's narrative, leaving a number of questions about what followed unanswered -- though enough is said to satisfy the reader. An appendix from some four decades later, by one of the minor figures, reveals a bit more -- while still leaving much tantalizingly open.
       The American Boy is a big, if not entirely grand thriller. Taylor evokes much very well, and has a decent plot behind it all. He does not entirely do justice to his full, rich cast of characters, unable -- or unwilling -- to use all the flourishes authors of similar novels (Wilkie Collins, Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton) readily did. In the appendix the author wonders:

Shield's language appears artless, yet I wonder whether its superficial simplicity may not conceal an element of calculation, a desire to manipulate the truth for purposes unknown.
       Still, it's a fine, big 19th-century sort of novel, written by an author in command of his material (juggling quite a few balls simultaneously), and offering all the thrills and frills one might hope from such fiction. It is certainly ultimately a satisfying read.

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The American Boy: Reviews: Edgar Allan Poe: Andrew Taylor: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Andrew Taylor has written dozens of novels.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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