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But What About the Ghost
on May 20, 2002
I usually can't stand mysteries but Charles Palliser's "The Quincunx" seemed too good to pass up...and it was. So, I was really eager to read "The Unburied," even though it took me some time to get around to doing just that. I found that "The Unburied" is a very different mystery than is "The Quincunx." While "The Quincunx" was filled with fast-paced adventure and intrigue, "The Unburied" is definitely a 19th century "drawing room" mystery. A lot of this book even takes place in the drawing room...in front of massive fireplaces, during tea, etc. It is a setting that fits the novel and the story told perfectly.
The trouble with "The Unburied," for me at least, is that it can't seem to decide exactly what it is. At first, it seems to be a very Gothic ghost story. Dr. Edward Courtine is an academician who travels to the British town of Thurchester to visit an old friend. In an overly-long opening exposition (one in which I nearly discarded the book), Courtine learns of a 200 year old murder and of a ghost that is said to still haunt Thurchester. Okay, I thought, good. I like ghost stories, as long as they're told with skill and panache.
Courtine however, wasn't as interested in the ghost (or in the fact that the people of Thurchester were acting in a very odd manner) as he was in tracking down a lost book on Alfred the Great. At this point, I felt my interest begin to sag a bit, but still, I thought, perhaps the lost book had something to do with the ghost. Palliser is a clever writer and I thought he would certainly tie the two together...eventually.
"The Unburied" is a book with more red herrings and false clues, more twists and turns than an Alpine mountain pass and this isn't always good. Not only do we have the 200 year old murder to think about, Palliser gives us a fresh murder to entice and confuse us. Is "The Unburied" about the 200 year old murder and the ghost that is said to haunt Thurchester or is it about this recent murder? The answer is really both and neither. If that makes no sense to you, you'll just have to read the book to find out why.
I liked "The Unburied" overall, but I think Palliser made it a little too ponderous, a little too difficult. There's a little too much "telling" in this book and not quite enough "showing." And I think it was a bit overly-long. Even 19th century readers got tired of so much expository material.
If Palliser wanted to write a book that returned the reader to the 19th century English "drawing room" mystery, he certainly succeeded. This a book that is very Victorian in flavor and in pace. I really didn't mind this slow pace...I like atmosphere and "The Unburied" simply abounds with rolling fog, gaslights and things that go bump in the night. What I didn't like was the fact that Palliser left so many questions unanswered and led us down so many false trails that we began to lose sight of the real one.
If you're a reader who loves a good mystery, who loves a mystery in which it's impossible to figure everything out, and if you have the patience to wade through many red herrings and false starts, then "The Unburied" might be perfect for you. But if you need something a little faster-paced and if you need all the questions answered at the book's end, it might be best to pass on this one even though it is very well-written.
I know several people have compared Palliser with Umberto Eco. This is unfair to both authors, I think, as both are very original in style and content. And really, Palliser is nothing at all like Eco! Eco is far more cerebral than is Palliser. Palliser, whose writing is just as good, writes more for the "everyday" reader than does Eco.
Overall, I liked "The Unburied," but I did get impatient with Palliser (and with Courtine) at times, and I did want to know about that ghost!