Review: The Unburied by Charles Palliser

The title of this book may suggest a horror story complete with zombies and vampires, but The Unburied is actually a scholarly murder mystery which reminded me of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco or An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears.  I wanted to read it because a few years ago I read another Charles Palliser book, The Quincunx, which I really enjoyed.  Like The Quincunx, this one is set (mostly) in Victorian England.  It begins with a mock ‘Editor’s Foreword’ in which we are told that we are about to read an account which will throw new light on the controversial Thurchester Mystery.  This account, known as The Courtine Account, forms the bulk of the book.

Dr Edward Courtine, a historian from Cambridge University, has been invited to spend the week before Christmas with Austin Fickling, an old friend from his student days who is now teaching at a school in the cathedral city of Thurchester.  He and Austin haven’t seen each other since they parted on bad terms twenty years ago, and Courtine is eager to renew their friendship.  He also has another reason for wanting to visit Thurchester – he has been studying King Alfred the Great and has learned that an ancient manuscript detailing the events of Alfred’s reign may be available in Thurchester Library.

On the night of Courtine’s arrival he hears the story of a murder that took place in the cathedral two centuries earlier.  Courtine is fascinated, but as he begins to investigate he becomes involved in another murder mystery – and discovers Austin’s true motive for inviting him to Thurchester.

As the main narrator of the book, I found Courtine very irritating, but at the same time I felt slightly sorry for him.  For such an obviously intelligent person he was completely lacking in perception, constantly saying the wrong things, missing important clues and failing to notice people behaving suspiciously.  Sometimes he would tell us that he was beginning to form a theory or that an idea had occurred to him, but he didn’t let us know what it was.  This was good in one way, as it encouraged me to work things out for myself, but it also annoyed me because I was already finding it difficult enough to keep all the threads of the story straight.

Although the town of Thurchester and its community are vividly depicted, I didn’t find any of the characters particularly memorable.  The fact that some of them had similar names (Slattery, Sheldrick, Sisterton for example) didn’t help.  There is actually a character list at the back of the book but I was trying not to look at it in case I came across any spoilers.  As for the plot, it’s so intricate you really need to read this book in as few sittings as possible so you don’t forget any important details.  There seemed to be a constant stream of unexplained deaths and forged documents, with at least three separate mysteries from different eras all running parallel to each other – and different characters giving different versions of what may or may not have happened.   I wished I had been taking notes from the beginning.

This is a very atmospheric book with lots of gothic elements, from the freezing fog that accompanies Courtine’s arrival in Thurchester to the obligatory ‘ghost’ supposedly haunting the cathedral.  It would have been a good book to read in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night.  In spite of the slow pace the book was relatively quick to read and although it was certainly confusing, I did enjoy it, especially when the various mysteries began to unravel towards the end.  Not as good as The Quincunx, though – if you’ve never read a Charles Palliser book before, try that one first.

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery/Publisher: Phoenix/Pages: 389/Year: 1999/Source: My own copy purchased used

2 thoughts on “Review: The Unburied by Charles Palliser

  1. Susi (The Book Affair) says:

    This actually sounds really good. I love Gothic fiction. I’ll have a look whether I can find his first one then, the one you recommended.

    • Helen (She Reads Novels) says:

      The Quincunx is a great book – I would like to re-read it sometime. It’s written in a Victorian style similar to Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins and although it’s very long, it’s definitely worth the time it takes to read it.

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