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The Unburied (1999)

by Charles Palliser

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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9862216,509 (3.53)38
In Victorian England, Dr. Courtine is invited to spend the days before Christmas with Austin, a friend from his youth, in the Cathedral Close of Thurchester. Courtine hopes to research an unsolved mystery at the cathedral library, but when Austin captivates him with the story of the town ghost -- a macabre tale of murder and deception dating back two centuries -- Courtine finds himself drawn instead into a haunting world of avarice, skullduggery, and exceptional evil. Daring, unpredictable, atmospheric, "The Unburied" is a dazzling entry in the canon of classic Victorian masterpieces of suspense.… (more)
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» See also 38 mentions

English (17)  German (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (19)
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
Does “The Unburied” really deserve five stars? I’m not sure, but for me this was a case of the “right book at the right time”, the novel I really needed. I received it in the run-up to Christmas, just as I was starting to tune in to carol broadcasts and to get out my choral CDs, whilst secretly wishing that my Mediterranean December would turn a tad foggier, colder and, generally, more “Northern”. And here was this atmospheric Gothic novel, set in a late 19th century English cathedral city in the days before Christmas.

It is difficult to give a comprehensible overview of the novel’s convoluted plot without giving any of the twists away, but I’ll try. The main body of the book consists of an account by one Dr Courtine, a Cambridge historian who is invited to spend part of the festive season in Thurchester with Austin Fickling, an old college friend. Courtine and Fickling had become estranged, and Courtine eagerly accepts the invitation, seeing it as an opportunity to heal old wounds. He also is keen on spending time in the Cathedral library where he hopes to find an ancient manuscript which could shed light on a problematic episode regarding the reign of Alfred the Great. Once in Thurchester, however, Courtine becomes obsessed with two other historical, albeit more recent, mysteries – the 17th century murder of Cathedral Treasurer William Burgoyne (and the subsequent disappearance of prime suspect Mason John Gambrill) and the killing of Dean Freeth, ostensibly for political reasons but possible for darker motives. Like the sleepy but deadly villages in “The Midsomer Murders”, Thurchester seems to be a veritable hotbed of criminality and intrigue. Before long, in fact, Courtine is embroiled in contemporary mysteries as well – chief amongst which is the puzzling behaviour of Fickling who, having invited Courtine to his house, now comes across as an increasingly reluctant and grumpy host. The evil which lurks in the historic city clearly goes beyond the petty "church politics" of the Cathedral canons.

In style, “The Unburied” is a veritable mash-up of Victorian genre fiction – the Gothic, the “English” ghost story, crime and sensation fiction are all thrown into the mix. It is rather as if Sheridan Le Fanu and Wilkie Collins teamed up to write a novel, with some help from M.R. James and (!) Anthony Trollope. In the initial chapters, the Gothic has the upper hand, as Courtine travels to a solitary, foggy train station and arrives at Fickling’s dark, creaky house; as the Cathedral (quite literally) throws up its dead and cloaked ghosts appear in the night. The novel’s debt towards the Gothic is also evident in its concern with old manuscripts and journals, unreliable narratives and multiple viewpoints.

Eventually, as secrets are slowly revealed – more tantalisingly than in a burlesque show – the sensation and crime novel elements come into play. The ending more or less manages to tie up all the loose ends (too tidily, perhaps?) - it is ingenious and satisfying and, considering the premises of the novel, does not unduly test the limits of our belief.

Like a glass of hot punch, “The Unburied” is a real delight – a seasonal one, perhaps, but a delight nonetheless. ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Jan 1, 2022 |
So boring!!! Little to no plot movement. Maybe I should try another time as I feel it had potential. I was thoroughly not interested. Darn. ( )
  melanieklo | Jul 25, 2018 |
This book is primarily a murder mystery with more than one murder. The main murder mystery is set in the late nineteenth century, but there is another murder, or possibly more, to be solved from 250 years earlier. In addition, the professional reputation of the main character depends on finding a seventeenth century document containing an account of an event that took place in the ninth century. Round all this off with events that take place in the early twentieth century and you have part of the recipe of Charles Palliser’s novel, The Unburied.

Other ingredients include highlighting the treatment of women in the nineteenth century, troubled relationships, prejudice, hints of paedophilia, treacherous friends, old quarrels, and fairy-tales, all set in an old cathedral town. Academic jealousy and internal politics all play a part in the events of Palliser’s 1999 novel.

Palliser seems to revel in creating multi-layered stories with events in one timeline paralleling those in another. In this case he also has fairy-tales that seem to reflect the live action and emotional turmoil.

There is much of the Gothic in this novel. Not just the cathedral and its dark and dismal surroundings, but also the unnerving behaviour of some of the characters, family secrets, hidden places, an ancient library, and plenty of deception and ulterior motives.

This is the third Charles Palliser novel I have read and I have enjoyed all three. Like his latest novel, Rustication, Palliser has used the mechanism of an old document being the core of his book with the document sandwiched between a foreword and afterword by the “editor”. Another of his techniques is keeping the reader wondering how reliable the narrator is. As with Rustication I felt, right up to the end, that the narrator could be spinning the reader a big yarn. Misdirection is a real skill of Palliser and I think The Unburied is a very enjoyable read. ( )
2 vote pgmcc | Dec 30, 2013 |
Much better than The Quincunx. ( )
  lisahistory | Sep 27, 2013 |
I was drawn to this one because it involves historians, archivists & archives and some other ingredients that I always find irresistable: a detective-story set in an old English, small community and everything that comes with it. I was not disappointed. Although it required some concentrated reading because of the different story-lines set in the past and a rather confusing mix of characters, I liked it better and better as I continued to read. Apart from the intricate story, the author also reflected on some universal issues and insights which I found especially interesting, e.g. where he reflects upon the meaning of his life when he realizes he is middle-aged and not the young man with his whole future ahead of him anymore.
I also thought it very interesting when his characters reflected on the fact that we tend to be partial towards historical characters and that we therefore should try to find out more about our own motives in order to realize our own prejudices.
But above all, I found this a very good detective-story. Worth the effort and highly recommended. ( )
2 vote Trifolia | Jun 13, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Palliser, Charlesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mulder, ArjenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Post, MaaikeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
Few books in recent times have created as much controversy as 'The Thurchester Mystery' when it was published three years ago.
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In Victorian England, Dr. Courtine is invited to spend the days before Christmas with Austin, a friend from his youth, in the Cathedral Close of Thurchester. Courtine hopes to research an unsolved mystery at the cathedral library, but when Austin captivates him with the story of the town ghost -- a macabre tale of murder and deception dating back two centuries -- Courtine finds himself drawn instead into a haunting world of avarice, skullduggery, and exceptional evil. Daring, unpredictable, atmospheric, "The Unburied" is a dazzling entry in the canon of classic Victorian masterpieces of suspense.

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In Victorian England, Dr. Courtine is invited to spend the days before Christmas with Austin, a friend from his youth, in the Cathedral Close of Thurchester. Courtine hopes to research an unsolved mystery at the cathedral library, but when Austin captivates him with the story of the town ghost - a macabre tale of murder and decption dating back two centuries - Courtine finds himself drawn instead into a haunting world of avarice, skullduggery, and exceptional evil. (0-7434-1051-3)
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