The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

The noctural pleasures of gentlemen
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Welcome to the silly season. Recent weeks have seen new novels from William Boyd, Roddy Doyle, Mark Haddon, JG Ballard and John le Carré (reviewed opposite), along with other prestigious names, all scrapping it out for press coverage and stellar sales. Just around the corner, there's a new Martin Amis. Simultaneously wading into the fray come some wildly fanfared debuts bought for extravagant advances, such as Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale (Orion £12.99) and now Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night, a 600-page Victorian murder mystery pastiche that took the author 30 years to complete.

Its progress followed Cox through two careers - as a singer and latterly an editor at Oxford University Press - and a grim period spent battling a rare form of cancer. As if that weren't enough to garner attention, Cox's publisher has come up with what it calls a "ground-breaking research project" in which it sent free copies of the book to 600 members of the "general public" to elicit a pre-publication buzz. That seems to me like an artificial attempt to create that most elusive of phenomena, a word-of-mouth success. And such puff and nonsense is unnecessary when the book itself is such an unadulterated pleasure.

The Meaning of Night is centred on that staple of great Victorian adventure books, a quest to right a wrong. Cox's narrator is Edward Glyver, the son of a widowed author. He is raised with love and moral guidance in a cottage perched on the rocky Dorset coastline where he whiles away the days reading the classics and walking the cliffs. Eventually his prodigious capacity for learning and an anonymous bequest propel him to Eton.

There he meets and befriends Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, the slippery protégé of Lord Tansor of Evenwood, a rambling pile in Northumberland. Edward finally wises up to the fact that Phoebus is a "deep-dyed sharp: a practised chizzler" and terminates the friendship. Consequently he finds himself framed for the theft of a rare volume from the school's library and is expelled. His future is suddenly dashed on the rocks of betrayal. Revenge becomes Edward's only reason for living. "I had no happiness, no contentment, only restiveness and agitation. I was adrift on an ocean of mystery," he laments.

When his mother dies, Edward discovers that his parentage might not be all that it seemed. Could he be the rightful heir to the Evenwood estate? However, Phoebus also has his eyes set on that particular prize. A murderous game of wits ensues amongst the rabbit warren of London's brothels, alleyways and opium dens. In prose as flamboyant as a bespoke smoking jacket, Cox's metropolis comes to life, teeming with hearty whores and weasily clerks.

Although this is firmly in Wilkie Collins and John Meade Falkner territory, Cox skilfully brings a modern sensibility to his 19th-century opus, much as Sarah Waters did in Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. The boundaries of good and evil become as foggy as the Thames embankment. However, I'm not sure Messrs Collins and Falkner would have had their hero slashing out the larynxes of innocent strangers or enjoying "the back stairs'' of a lady of ill repute. Having Phoebus become a foppish poet spouting "an unstoppable torrent of drivel in rhyming couplets" is a nice comic touch that makes him oddly endearing. In addition, there are footnotes to the complex narrative, added by the fictional present-day academic who supposedly discovered Edward's manuscript.

Cox's epic is as thrilling as a Hansom cab chase and as guilty a pleasure as a nocturnal turn at a gentleman's "introducing house". It's an entertaining love letter to the bizarre and dangerous hypocrisies of Victorian England. Read it late at night, preferably with a storm raging outside. If its publishers really want to make a splash in the silly season, they should provide a leather armchair and a good bottle of claret with every copy.