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The Unburied by Charles Palliser

The Unburied (1999)

by Charles Palliser

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Showing 1-5 of 15 (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 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 our belief.

Like a glass of hot punch, “The Unburied” is a real delight – a seasonal one, perhaps, but a delight nonetheless. ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Dec 21, 2016 |
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 MGovers | Jun 13, 2012 |
A very well done pastiche of Victorian gothic whodunnits. Bit wordy and slow, especially at the start, but had some interesting hooks that got me suckered in.

The ending was a bit strange though, sort of if the Scooby Gang had ripped the mask off the "ghost" and instead of discovering the fun-park operator ("and I would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for those pesky kids!"), they discovered someone that hadn't actually been in the entire episode, or even the entire season.

Maybe I missed something... ( )
  wookiebender | Feb 13, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Charles Palliserprimary authorall editionscalculated
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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Book description
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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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0743410513, Paperback)

Though putatively a mystery set (mostly) in the Victorian age, Charles Palliser's The Unburied has more in common with Umberto Eco than Arthur Conan Doyle. Like The Name of the Rose, this novel is set in a scholarly community and features a lost manuscript as the McGuffin of choice. And here, too, the mystery is not really what the book is about at all. Palliser's tale centers on Edward Courtine, a Cambridge don with a bee in his bonnet about Alfred the Great. It doesn't take a great medievalist to figure out that Courtine has allowed emotion to cloud his reason concerning the Saxon monarch: his version of Alfred's life and character is so forgiving as to be downright suspicious.

When it is suggested that a source dear to his heart may in fact be fraudulent, he accuses his critics of cowardice. According to Courtine, those revisionist scoundrels doubt the veracity of his beloved source "because their own self-serving cynicism is reproached by the portrait of the king that Grimbald offers. You see, his account confirms how extraordinarily brave and resourceful and learned Alfred was, and what a generous and much-loved man." Now Courtine has come to the cathedral town of Thurcester because he believes Grimbald's original manuscript may be in the cathedral library--a manuscript that he hopes will validate his own version of the great king's reign.

Palliser takes his time setting up his story, seeding it with clues that more often than not lead to dead ends. We learn, for example, that Courtine was once married, that his wife ran off with another man, and that he blames his school pal Austin Fickling for the rupture in his marital bliss. Dark doings at the cathedral are also hinted at, with quite a lot of space devoted to a murder that occurred centuries earlier. Meanwhile, ecclesiastical renovations turn up some unpleasant surprises--and as yet another murder ensues, Courtine is swept up in less scholarly pursuits. As the hapless academic (a Watson without a Holmes) pursues one red herring after another, it becomes apparent that Courtine's psyche is the real mystery on hand. History, he discovers, can obscure as much as it elucidates. All these years, his obsession with an idealized past has provided an excellent refuge from the realities of his present. In the end, what he uncovers is the secret of himself--and the reader of The Unburied is treated to a fine ghost story, in which the ghosts are quite literally all in the mind. --Alix Wilber

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:39 -0400)

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A historical sleuth in Victorian England solves an 11th century murder by reading manuscripts in a cathedral library. While there, a real-life murder occurs and he turns sleuth, but his sleuthing is a fiasco, casting doubt on his earlier findings and therefore his integrity as a historian.… (more)

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