By Charles Palliser
Farrar Straus Giroux. 403 pp. $24
If asked by some literary Gallup poll to list the various "pleasures of the text," most serious readers would doubtless assume a pensive expression -- the Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer look -- and then murmur something about an author's style, his or her brilliantly alive characters, a book's amusement value per page, or the largeness of a novel's theme (war and peace, the remembering of things past). I suspect that few, excepting classic mystery fans, would mention skillful, ingenious plotting.
Yet Aristotle himself opens his Poetics by emphasizing the crucial importance of plot in tragic drama and, by implication, in all effective storytelling. Writing is, in some ways, relatively easy: One establishes a voice or tone and the sentences flow, subject, of course, to the usual buffing and polishing. But finding the right story to tell, and the right way to reveal its elements -- that is another matter. P.G. Wodehouse, for example, would labor for months over his comic novels, trying out one twist after another, tirelessly seeking to entangle Bertie Wooster in some disastrous, apparently inextricable predicament while simultaneously creating the unobserved loophole that will allow Jeeves to rescue his inept master. In scores of golden-age mysteries, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie patiently constructed innocent-seeming narratives that turn out to mask layer upon layer of delicious plot complexity. Many celebrated short stories -- in particular those by O. Henry, Maupassant and Somerset Maugham -- arrive at their last sentences with the neatness and finality of a trap door banging shut.
In general, we undervalue plot because it feels somehow artificial, and those genres that bring it to the forefront -- the detective story, the thriller -- tend to be regarded as craftsmanlike entertainments rather than real literature. Still, sensitive stories about family unhappiness or adultery in the suburbs come and go -- any of us could write them, and many of us do -- but it takes luck, hard work or sheer inspiration to create "The Lottery" or Flowers for Algernon.
Charles Palliser's The Unburied probably generates as much plot per page as is humanly possible to and still be readable. At times, in truth, the novel grows almost too complex, with multiple parallels, echoes and inversions forming an ever-thickening counterpoint, like a Bach fugue played on the old church organ in the ghostly cathedral town of Thurchester. The principal action at the heart of The Unburied -- the brutal murder of a rich elderly banker -- takes place during a few days in the later 19th century, but Palliser contrives matters so that the events of that half-week form an ominous chord with a martyr's death during the reign of Alfred the Great, murderous church squabbles at the time of the English Restoration, and a personal tragedy in the life of the main narrator, the well-meaning if just slightly obtuse medieval historian Edward Courtine. This narrative abundance is, in its turn, framed by an editor's preface and afterword, and complemented by the reprinting of an original and suggestive fairy tale.
All this cleverness admirably serves to recreate a Victorian sensation novel reminiscent of Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu or John Meade Falkner. Following the editor's opening pages -- to which readers should pay close attention -- we are presented with Dr. Courtine's account of his pre-Christmas visit to an old Oxford friend, schoolmaster Austin Fickling. He begins the record of his unsettling sojourn this way: "While my memory is fresh I am going to describe exactly what I saw and heard on the occasion, less than a week past, when I encountered a man who was walking about just like you and me -- despite the inconvenience of having been brutally done to death. My visit began inauspiciously. Because of the weather, which for two days had draped a cloak of freezing fog upon the southern half of the country, the train was delayed and I missed a connection. By the time I reached my destination -- two hours late -- I had been traveling for several hours through a premature night. As I sat alone in the ill-lit carriage, holding a book in front of me but making little attempt to read, I gazed out at the shrouded landscape that grew increasingly unfamiliar and indistinct as the dusk fell and the fog thickened. Gradually the impression took hold of me that the train was bearing me not forwards but backwards -- carrying me out of my own life and time and into the past. . . ."
While drawing the reader into the kind of atmospheric tale that poet Philip Sidney said "holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner," Palliser, author of the well-received (and considerably longer) thriller The Quincunx, here infuses his softly accented period prose with some nicely ambiguous hints and ironies: "I am going to describe exactly . . . draped a cloak of freezing fog. . . I missed a connection. . . a shrouded landscape that grew increasingly unfamiliar and indistinct. . . two hours late. . . into the past." As in so many such mysteries, our middle-aged academic sees everything yet understands almost nothing. Gradually, the reader learns that 20 years previously Fickling acted reprehensibly in some unnamed way that wrecked Courtine's life. Since then Courtine has grown slightly pedantic, cautious and repressed, while Fickling has rather gone to seed, a once-brilliant undergraduate now rusticating in the provincial backwater of Thurchester, without funds, prone to drink. They make efforts to reestablish their camaraderie, but the schoolmaster appears increasingly ill at ease and prone to emotional outbreaks.
In due course, Courtine naturally visits the ancient cathedral and actually persuades workers there to alter slightly (but significantly) their restoration plans. He also hears the story of how the 17th-century canon-treasurer William Burgoyne was apparently murdered by the chief mason John Gambrill, who after the crime was never seen again. He learns of the pocket-lining "malversations" of the sub-dean Launcelot Freeth, who was later executed by royalist soldiers. Eventually, Courtine's particular researches take him to the cathedral library, where he rummages for a missing document that may prove the truth about the death of Alfred the Great's teacher, the reputed martyr St. Wulflac. And then, at twilight on his second day in Thurchester, he meets an old man, Mr. Stonex, who invites him to come to tea while alluding to a strange family legend.
Naturally, all these stories, encounters and revelations seem increasingly and ominously meaningful, parts of a whole greater than themselves. Much of the novel's historical matter is appropriately related through transcribed documents -- as in the ghost stories of M.R. James -- and Palliser infuses his deeply complex narrative with an atmosphere of the clammy, decaying and unnatural. Little wonder then that Courtine glimpses the limping ghost. Or follows Fickling at night through labyrinthine streets to a mysterious house. Or finds his gorge rising at the stench that suddenly suffuses the cathedral.
But The Unburied, for all its spookiness, is more mystery than supernatural tale. At its heart lies a murder, and so it should appeal to fans of the Victorian-era whodunits of Anne Perry or Peter Lovesey, though confirmed mystery addicts will doubtless be able to guess the main trick at the heart of the murder (as I did, largely from hints given in the preface). The novel's prose moves swiftly but pauses from time to time for lengthy -- and interesting -- conversations about the nature of religious belief, historical investigation and marital passion. Palliser even inserts sentences that call to mind tags from 19th-century authors like Nietzsche and Thoreau ("When you come to die you'll realize that you have not lived").
In the end, adultery, homosexuality, family violence, bribery, scholarly corruption, women's oppressed lot, the buried life -- all mark and scar these seemingly proper Victorian figures. Like A.S. Byatt's Possession or the bookish thrillers of Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Unburied provides a fine literary diversion for a winter's night or two. Who, after all, can resist a novel with an antique inscription that darkly hints at so much of its action: "All things revolve and Man who is born to Labour revolves with them. And therefore in the Ripenesse of Time shall they that are on High be brought Low, and they that are Low be Raised on High. Then shall the Guilty be shattered into pieces like unto the Innocent, by their own Engin brought to Destruction even in the Moment of Triumph. For when the Earthe shudders and the Towers tremble, the Grave will yield up her secretes and all be known."
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com.