cover image The Unburied

The Unburied

Charles Palliser / Author Farrar Straus Giroux $24 (403p) ISBN

A complex chronicle of evil, immorality and greed, British writer Palliser's engrossing new gothic thriller adroitly keeps three plot lines spinning and three mysteries unwinding while maintaining an atmosphere of sophisticated intrigue and dark suspense. The narrator of the main story, set in the late Victorian era, is Dr. Edward Courtine, an Oxford historian nearing 50, who leads a lonely life focused mainly on his research about a strange incident in the life of ninth-century monarch King Alfred the Great. Since an important 11th-century document relating to that event may be hidden in the library of the Thurchester Cathedral, Courtine is glad to accept an invitation from an old friend from his Cambridge college days, Austin Fickling, from whom he has been estranged for 20 years, to visit him in that remote little town. Veiled allusions from Courtine about the part that Fickling played in the breakup of Courtine's brief marriage constitute another layer of secrets. The Thurchester Cathedral also played a crucial role in the 17th-century murder of powerful, aristocratic Canon Treasurer William Burgoyne, and the disappearance of the cathedral's chief mason--and the discovery of a body in a supposedly empty crypt during Courtine's Christmas-time visit only complicates the mystery. Framing these stories is the dramatic, teasingly oblique confrontation by the fictional editor of Courtine's posthumous papers with a woman who seems to hold the keys to another murder, a grisly affair that occurs during Courtine's stay in Thurchester. Each of these intersecting plots holds evidence of venal conduct, unscrupulous motives, religious factionalism, scholarly infighting and sexual secrets. With the minute calibrations and subtle slight-of-hand of a safe-cracker, Palliser (The Quincunx) advances his intricate, page-turning narrative with intriguing revelations, while depicting Courtine's gradual enlightenment about the moral decisions that lie in his path. Both a gifted raconteur and a shrewd observer of human nature, Palliser should win new readers on this side of the Atlantic with this compulsively readable tale. (Nov.)