Crime Fiction Alphabet: U is for Unburied

I was going to be sensible. I was going to read a short modern book from my Filling The Gaps pile for letter U in the Crime Fiction Alphabet.

But in the end another book, a book that I knew would throw me way behind schedule was calling me much to loudly to resist.

The Unburied by Charles Palliser.

“A big, fat murder mystery. It is a perfectly pitched pastiche of Victorian Gothic … compulsive reading.”

That’s what it said on the back cover, quoting the London Evening Standard, and I have to agree.

At the heart of the book is The Courtine Account, a document written in 1882 and put away to be opened only after the deaths of certain of those mentioned in its pages.

The Courtine Account was finally unsealed in 1919.

It was written by Doctor Edward Courtine, a historian, a distinguished academic but  a solitary man. A man who had separated himself from the world, and as a result lacked insight and understanding of other men.

It was clear that something was amiss. Subtle hints were dropped as the story advanced and eventually the truth of the man’s history would be revealed.

He was invited to spend the week before Christmas with Austin Fickling, a student friend who had become a teacher in the cathedral city of Thurchester. The two hadn’t met for more than twenty years, and there had been bad feeling between them, but  Courtine welcomed the invitation.

He was eager to visit Thurchester as he had a great interest in King Alfred the Great, and he had learned that an earlier historian with the same interest had worked Thurchester Library, and had maybe left behind papers that were never catalogued.

It didn’t occur him to wonder why Fickling had been so eager to extend that invitation, and why he behaved so erratically.

Fickling told him stories. Stories of a ghost that was said to walk in the town. The ghost of a man who was murdered at the cathedral two centuries before. Courtine is fascinated and so he has a great deal to research, a great deal to discuss at the library and at the cathedral.

He is so caught up in his research, so disinterested in what might motivate other men, that he doesn’t wonder why the owner of the house said to be haunted by the murdered man invites him into his home. Even though that man’s door is always locked, opening only to allow servants to enter and leave, and never, never admitting guests.

And, of course, it is too late that Courtine realises that he has become a pawn in a murderous conspiracy.

He struggles both to uncover the truth, and  to have it believed.

The Unburied is a book that ebbs and flows.

An introduction, in 1919 with The Courtine Account finally unsealed in a wonderful piece of drama.

Then the pace slows as the account itself begins. There are many conversations, many small details. Stories are told, retold, discussed …It’s still a pleasure to read, but a more subtle pleasure. Close attention is required, but it pays, it really does.

The pastiche of Victorian Gothic is pitch perfect. Others (I’m thinking particularly of Sarah Waters and the late Michael Cox) may have written with more verve, more drama, but The Unburied is just as fine, in a quieter, more cerebral way.

And the two murder mysteries, two centuries apart, were intriguing.

The pace rose again as the account the Courtine Account ended with a quite splendid courtroom drama, and the author’s realisation that all he can do is set down what he knows.

The finale picked up the 1919 story again, and tied up some, but not all, of the loose ends. There was maybe a little too much revelation at the final hour, a little too much contrivance, and, I think, a little cheat, but there was so much in this book to think about that I could quite easily forgive that.

Because I would so like to travel back to Thurcester, to observe and ponder those mysteries just a little more …


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week tomorrow V is for … ?

4 responses

  1. Yay! I’ve been waiting for this post, and it sounds like a book I definitely want to try. I love Waters, although I didn’t get along that well with the Cox I started (I think it just wasn’t the right time).

  2. I read this last year and although it wasn’t an easy read it was definitely worth the effort. Have you read The Quincunx, also by Charles Palliser? If not I think you might enjoy it.

  3. I read and enjoyed The Quincunx a long time ago, it’s on my shelf awaiting a re-read. This one sounds as though it’s in a similar vein.

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