After the drowning death of their son Georgie, John and Maria Holdsworth reacted in very different ways, Maria spent all of her time with a woman who claimed that she was in contact with Georgie's spirit, while John wrote `The Anatomy of Ghosts' - his account of why ghosts are delusion. When finances become constrained the Holdsworths need to move from the house in which they'd lived with their son. Maria refuses, and the next day she too is found dead in the Thames.
John Holdsworth is bewildered and broke, and haunted by his own ghosts. Lady Anne Oldershaw, familiar with his book, offers him employment. While part of the employment relates to organizing her late husband's library, she also believes that he may be able to help her son Frank. Frank, a student at Jerusalem College in Cambridge seems to have lost his mind. Frank believes that he has seen the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote, a friend's wife, and Lady Anne wants John Holdsworth to demonstrate to Frank that it was either a delusion or a hoax. She believes that this will restore Frank's sanity.
Cambridge, in 1786, is a claustrophobic place, and Jerusalem College has its own secrets. Frank was being initiated into Jerusalem's hellfire society, the Holy Ghost Club as the novel opens and the mystery surrounding this club makes it difficult for John Holdsworth to find out what really happened. Finding out how and why Sylvia Whichcote drowned leads John Holdsworth on an interesting, and dramatic, journey of discovery. Few people are who they seem to be, and the class structure - so painstakingly drawn - seems to be a barrier to discovering the truth. But John Holdsworth is nothing if not persistent and if he can't unravel the truth about the death of Sylvia Whichcote, perhaps he needs to reconsider the possible existence of ghosts.
I enjoyed this novel: the fact that John Holdsworth is an outsider to Cambridge meant that we learned about the arcana and inner workings of eighteenth century English university life as he did. It may slow the pace of the story down a little, but it certainly enriches it.