The Meaning of Night, by Michael Cox

Double visions of Victorian vice
Click to follow

There are books that cannot be written in their own time; it is for later ages to tell those stories and fill in the gaps. Our awareness of this, and that the same applies to our time, makes some writers perform that act of justice and speak for the underdogs whose voices were suppressed, or even for the villains. Michael Cox is a scholar of the Victorian ghostly tale, who has also edited anthologies of spy and detective stories. So it was hardly to be supposed that his first novel would stay away from the period, or from the uncanny and elaborately plotted.

Like many genuine Victorian novels, this complexly constructed pastiche depends on an inheritance and an imposture. The narrator, Glyver, tells most people that his name is Glapthorn, and even the name he thinks is his may be a lie. We know from the beginning, when he kills a stranger to prove that he is capable of murder, that this is a man who inhabits the borderland of sanity. It is never entirely clear how much he tells us is true, even within the confines of a novel.

Glyver is a good hater, with reason to hate. According to his version, the poet Phoebus Daunt got him expelled from Eton long before Daunt set about acquiring the inheritance and fiancée that Glyver claims should be his by right. If Glyver is sane, all this may be true; but we know he is deeply amoral and deeply troubled. Cox makes us read his novel as if it were two texts, the Victorian narrative of intrigue and the modern novel of psychopathology, which overlay each other.

This is a story that, in summary, stretches plausibility: of revenges that involve staggering injustices and dastardly plots requited with equal violence. As a novel of sensation, it is as outrageous in its use of coincidence and surprise as any book by Wilkie Collins or Dickens. Cox is free to get away with all this because he is playing by the rules of another time and its favourite fictions. Like Charles Palliser, Michel Faber and Sarah Waters, Cox is making the Victorian era a switchback ride for the reader's mind.

Because written in a fairly accurate rendition of Victorian prose, and dotted with all the observations and references appropriate to a narrative of the 1850s, Cox's book also sets side by side the Victorian mind as it liked to think of itself and as we know it to have been. Glyver finds no contradiction in his chaste passion for the woman he loves, his amiable devotion to his courtesan mistress and his casual sodomising of young whores picked up in the street; he is a man of a time not our own, and some of the time he seems like an alien. Even the clues he uses to solve mysteries are from areas of knowledge - the Victorian underworld, the higher bibliography - that we need to have explained to us.

Read as if every word were reliable, this is a rich and complicated tale of a man wronged beyond endurance who takes an almost pointless revenge knowing that it will change nothing. Read as a madman's rant in which nothing is reliable , The Meaning of Night is a journey into darkness whose bleak sense of entrapment is only occasionally lightened by doomed Glyver's triumphs.

Roz Kaveney's 'Teen Dreams' is published by IB Tauris