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The Unburied by Charles Palliser

Q. Gothic pastiche or
mawkish pasty?
A. Neither. Both are
stupid answers.
It is likely to upset the cultured reader, but I must begin by confessing that I was immediately disappointed that this novel was not a western.


Have all the cultured readers left? Okay, good. Further elaboration is probably necessary here, but you may already have guessed the unintentional link to The Unforgiven, that rather good horse opera with Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood a few years back. Imagine my surprise when I opened it and found what was in essence a verbose and in places stodgy pastiche of a Victorian murder mystery. 


I have a cunning plan...
Now, don't get me wrong, I like a good murder as much as the next guy, but this one was old before the action herein took place, and the additional contemporaneous murder happens rather towards the end of the novel, so rather than a gripping read, it felt more like an episode of Time Team (one of the ones where they intend to discover secret caches of lost Roman loot but end up digging through some water mains). 


The premise is that some moth-eaten fart, your typical self-important academic, is lured into a dark web of deceit by an erstwhile college chum, clottishly mincing about the cloistered halls of a fictional cathedral town and bumbling through social interaction with a host of social and political deviants, but accidentally uncovering the truth behind an historical murder mystery whilst also foiling the duplicitous motives of said former college friend, who happens to be a sodomite for good measure. And, as if this weren't enough, it is all presented as the "found" testimony of the aforementioned academic buffoon by the editor of the text, who gifts himself a brief role in the introductory passage confronting the mother / sister / aunt / daughter of one of the characters (I'm unclear here who she was again, as in all the fun, I lost track of the labyrinthine interconnections of the various participants) and introducing into evidence the all too important giant metal keys, without which none of the rest of the plot makes any sense, so Palliser would have you believe.


Whilst enjoyable in an odd way, this novel is not all that interesting. Whilst I would have preferred more Zane Gray and less Victorian guff, I was more interested in the rather dull sub-plot about new evidence of Alfred the Great than which gimpy mason killed another gimpy mason, and what the smell was in the Cathedral (I knew it was a dead body before I even understood where it was entombed). It did all seem to hang together, in so far as I can't remember any loose ends as such, but frankly, it would have been better if, a la Roger Ackroyd, the narrator had done "it", and certainly more surprising than the actual, tepid conclusion. All in all, I don't regret having read The Unburied. I just wish there were more horse chases and shoot-outs. And no-one said "I reckon" even once.
 

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