Book review: Murder in the cathedral

Jane Jakeman savours the fogbound thrills of a Victorian mystery
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A FOGGY cathedral close, a house that creaks in the night like an old ship... the name of MR James is bound to crop up in reviews of this book, which features a Cambridge scholar investigating mysterious cathedral archives in an atmosphere of spooky semi-perceptions. But if The Unburied is to be called Jamesian, it's not MR who should be invoked, nor even Henry, but Henry's psychologist brother, William. For, although it has a spine-chilling opening, this novel is about a more complex intellectual investigation than ghost hunting.

Palliser's chief narrator, like William James, is a 19th-century rationalist embarking on a hunt for truth; a man who pities believers and for whom the cathedral has no spiritual significance. Courtine's character constitutes one of the great virtues of the book. Palliser understands that an era is not a cliche, that all Victorians were not credulous religious obsessives. He creates a sympathetic mind-set that we call "modern" - sceptical, analytical, self-observing.

Besides, as Courtine notes, the fear of supernatural manifestations is much worse for someone who does not believe in ghosts. If spectres do exist, then a rationalist's entire system of disbelief in the supernatural will be destroyed.

Courtine arrives, in a gas-lit atmosphere described so evocatively one can almost taste it, at the shabby house of Austin Fickling, a fellow- student he has not seen for many years. Fickling is tormented by strange dreams and his abode is overlooked, physically and symbolically, by the shadow of Thurchester Cathedral. Courtine's purpose is to track down a medieval chronicle, but he finds himself embroiled as a witness to murder in a case investigated by Major Antrobus: an entertaining anti-detective who could not get things more wrong.

Within this story lie others, including facts and legends surrounding a 17th-century murder possibly committed by a cathedral mason. And as Courtine's researches take him back in time, he finds a mystery going back to the ninth century, which may reveal the Victorian hero, Alfred the Great, as a deceitful and cowardly killer. The narrative of Courtine is framed by a later record, constituting yet another phase and contributing a sudden new perspective on the novel's central mystery.

The interplay of these threads creates a remarkable spectrum of attitudes to murder, guilt and hatred, and allows Courtine to embark on a process which will change his own life. He is the survivor of a broken marriage, a middle-aged scholar contemplating a lonely future. Emotional intensity charges the narration with anger and revenge.

The novel has to interlock events in different centuries. The 19th-century narrative of Courtine is deeply convincing, but the characters in the earlier periods are sketchier, tending to involve us only at an intellectual level and needing a great deal of exegesis. Behind this lies a general problem of historical crime fiction: the crime genre demands a tense narrative, but the writer must constantly convey plot-clogging background.

Because of its complexity The Unburied may be called a cult book, which usually means something unreadable except by a few nutters with a web- site. But Palliser's book is a much greater achievement: an analysis of attitudes to guilt, death and forgiveness, and of the nature of history itself.