Michael Cox: Author who secured a record advance for his first novel

Michael Cox's life had almost as many unexpected twists as the plots of the Victorian novels that he loved so much. From debilitating childhood illness, via studies at university and a digression into a rock career, he became an author of slim books on health and scholarly reference works and then an editor at Oxford University Press (OUP). For three decades he lived as much in his own re-creation of Wilkie Collins's foggy milieux as he did the prosaic Midlands around him. Finally, galvanised by the onset of the illness that was to kill him, he turned his jottings into a hefty book, The Meaning of Night (2006), for which, after a bidding war, he received an advance of £500,000, an unprecedented amount for a first novel.

Michael Cox was born in Wellingborough in 1948, and grew up in Northamptonshire where his parents worked in the shoe industry. Bed-bound at three with a prolonged ear infection, he learnt to read. A key moment in Cox's life occured when, staying with his grandparents, he saw from a window that the neighbours were burying fine Victorian books – well bound, lavishly tooled – as they thought such things harboured disease. He and his grandparents saved them, and he was ever after absorbed in them, especially the Arabian Nights tales.

Fiction became a passion, and from Wellingborough Grammar School he went to St Catharines College, Cambridge where an academic career looked likely until he was asked to perform a score alongside a friend's silent film. In classic fashion, a talent scout saw him and Cox was offered a contract. He released two albums on EMI under the name Matthew Ellis: the first, eponymously titled, released in 1971, showed him in front of a garishly highlighted stately home, and owed something to Procul Harum and musicians from the folk and session worlds.

"I never used my own name, partly because there was another Michael Cox who'd been recording since the late Fifties and partly because I wasn't into the rock-star ego thing," he said. "I needed to hide behind a false name." He did so again as Obie Clayton, a group which made a 1975 album at the esteemed Sawmills studio in Cornwall.

At a dance he saw Desda "Dizzy" Crockett across a crowded room and was smitten. With her two children, they set up home in Northamptonshire, duly married in 1973 and had a daughter. In 1977 he had begun working for the nearby publisher Thorsons, noted for its health list. In 1979, Cox published The Subversive Vegetarian (published again in 1985 as The New Vegetarian), which included recipes by Dizzy, and Cox's description of how she had weaned him off meat.

"The concept of blood as the river of life continues to exert a powerful psychological hold even today. It is a force that no vegetarian should underestimate," he wrote. Over six months, Dizzy, already vegetarian, had drastically but painlessly reduced the amount of meat in Cox's diet, until the epiphany came when he realised "that I could not face the steaming Shepherd's Pie that had been placed before me. My career as a carnivore was over."

Cox was now a freelance copy editor, working with panache and drawing out writers' intentions without imposing himself. His employers included OUP, for whom he had also written an elegant, popular biography of M.R. James (1983). Cox's taste for Victorian fiction led to his joining OUP's reference division in 1989. As well as his own anthologies of ghost stories, Victorian ghost stories and similar works, he produced The Oxford Chronology of English Literature (2002), but recurrent ill health had brought early retirement in 1997. Hard-up after leaving OUP, he copy-edited, mainly for HarperCollins.

Despite urging vegetarianism as a defence against cancer, Cox developed brain tumours that were probably caused by the radium rods used to treat his childhood ear problems (when he was diagnosed, he began to eat meat again). With a worsening situation eased by a major operation in 2004 at the Cromwell Hospital, he worked in earnest, fearful of vanishing eyesight. He wrote The Meaning of Night at a Dickensian clip. The story concerns the Victorian bibliophile Edward Glyver's plot to recover his legacy, Evenwood, a splendid Northamptonshire house. With all the trappings of the era's "fog-weighted streets" and many a literary reference, the tale is unabashedly gung-ho and was sold around the world.

For his next novel, Cox assumed the voice of a lady's maid who, 20 years on, has arrived at Evenwood, where "still one of the greatest prizes in England", Baroness Tansor, "will not succumb to Love again, for her heart is shut against all further assault from that quarter". Naturally, or unnaturally, all is not what it seems: if anything, The Glass of Time (2008) is even more gripping.

Christopher Hawtree

Michael Cox, writer: born Wellingborough 25 October 1948; married 1973 Desda Crockett (one daughter; two stepchildren); died Kettering 31 March 2009.