- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleOur Review
A Historical Murder Mystery of the Highest Order
In 1990, Charles Palliser made a spectacular debut with The Quincunx, a huge, densely plotted book that illuminates, in extraordinary detail, virtually every level of English society in the early 19th century. In his fourth novel, The Unburied, Palliser turns to the late Victorian era to give us an equally authoritative reconstruction of the past and a tightly compressed narrative filled with treachery, drama, and interconnected mysteries.
The novel opens with a brief preface in which Philip Barthram, editor of the manuscript we're about to read, travels to Geneva for an enigmatic encounter with an old, dying woman. At the end of this encounter -- which makes numerous references to events and people we know nothing about -- the narrative shifts abruptly, taking us into "The Courtine Account," a memoir written by Cambridge historian Edward Courtine. The memoir recounts Courtine's 1881 visit to the cathedral town of Thurchester, site of the mysteries that will gradually dominate the novel.
Ostensibly, Courtine has come to Thurchester to visit his former college roommate, Austin Fickling. Courtine and Austin parted bitterly 20 years before and hope to effect a belated reconciliation. Courtine also hopes to unearth a manuscript -- rumored to reside in the Thurchester library -- that will shed new light on his academic specialty, the reign of King Alfred, medieval ruler of Wessex. As he attempts to follow both his personal and professional agendas, Edward finds himself embroiled in a pair of unresolved mysteries. One concerns the 200-year-old murders of William Burgoyne and Launcelot Freeth, whose violent deaths continue to generate controversy and speculation. The other concerns the brutal killing of a local banker, a killing that takes place -- or appears to take place -- just minutes after Courtine and Austin have visited the banker's home.
As the novel progresses, the details of the two crimes echo each other with an eerie frequency. With unobtrusive skill, Palliser leads us through a cumulatively fascinating labyrinth composed of fact, rumor, legend, and supposition. Within this labyrinth, objective "truth" proves to be an illusive, perhaps unattainable goal. But Courtine, a historian who believes in the power of the imagination, continues to pursue that goal. In the course of his pursuit, which is never wholly successful, he finds himself forced to reassess the central elements of his life: his embattled relationship with Austin Fickling, the painful failure of his marriage, two decades before, and the unperceived weaknesses of his own character.
Admirers of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, John Fowles, and Umberto Eco should take this novel to their hearts. The Unburied is exciting, audacious, mysterious, moving, and intellectually challenging, all at once. Like The Quincunx, it speaks clearly and directly to the modern sensibility and leaves a lingering aftertaste behind.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has recently been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).