How many times, dear Reader, have you been lured into picking up a new book by promises that it possesses all the charms of the 19th century classics: plots as twisty and characters as colorful as Dickens, the wit of Jane Austen, the passion of the Brontës, the social scope of Trollope? And how many times have your hopes been dashed? You'll hear the same promises with regard to Michael Cox's hefty first novel, "The Meaning of Night," but in this rare case, they come pretty close to the mark.
"The Meaning of Night" is a historical novel, set in the mid-1800s and not unsimilar to Charles Palliser's 1990 bestseller, "The Quincunx," although Cox's novel is by far the easier to follow. Both books feature a hero desperately struggling to regain a legacy that has been denied him. Cox, however, relies less on the arcana of British inheritance law and turns instead to the good old reliable devices of melodrama and intrigue: disguises, lurkers in dark London alleyways, documents stashed in secret compartments and the odd opium den.
Cox, an expert on the English ghost and detective story and the biographer of the great ghost story writer M.R. James, has the period down cold. The voice he uses is not unnecessarily Victorian (a contemporary novel written in exactly the same style as Dickens -- digressive and descriptive -- would probably irritate a modern reader), but Cox knows how to make his book feel like a 19th century novel without actually imitating one. He makes his narrator a bibliophile, prone to citing and lingering over the details of such obscure tomes as "Battista Marino's Epithalami (Paris, 1616 -- the first collected edition and the only edition printed outside Italy)." Contemporary footnotes from a learned and fictional editor -- a professor of "Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction" at Cambridge, who purports to have discovered this "confession" -- further the scholarly tone.
However, Edward Glyver, Cox's narrator, is not like your standard Victorian hero -- or any Victorian hero, for that matter, unless you count Heathcliff. Like A.A. Milne's King John, he is not a good man, but unlike King John, he is sometimes so bad that you stop hoping he'll get his red India-rubber ball. The ball in Glyver's case is a title, a fortune and Evenwood, a bewitching stately home in Northamptonshire, to which he is the rightful heir. The obstacle between Glyver and Evenwood, his "enemy" and the man on whom he is pathologically fixated, is a celebrated (though third-rate) poet, Phoebus Daunt.
Despite Glyver's fusty hobby and his entanglement in a winding plot of concealed identities, appropriated inheritances and something called a "Barony by Writ," he is really a noir antihero along the lines of Philip Marlowe. By the time we meet him, he has done some deplorable things, and his conscience is far from easy. He is well acquainted with some of the more unwholesome circles of the London underworld, and he knows how to adopt the kind of facial expression that makes "even the inhabitants of these infernal regions step aside as I approached." He has formed a tender, long-term liaison with a high-end prostitute, and exhibits a very un-Victorian liberal-mindedness about her profession. Worst of all, Glyver's "confession" begins with his least forgivable act, the killing of an entirely innocent man, a mere practice run for his intended murder of Daunt.
Although Glyver carries around a copy of John Donne's sermons, and refers to it for comfort in moments of duress, he's not a religious man. Instead, he defers to what he calls "the Iron Master," his nickname for the presiding deity of the noir universe, Fate. So, not surprisingly, Glyver also encounters the Victorian version of a femme fatale, a beautiful lady of unreadable mien who may or may not be pursuing interests of her own. As for Daunt, like the perp in many a detective yarn, he's elusive; in fact, almost the only face-to-face encounters between the two men occur in a flashback to their schoolboy days at Eton.
Some critics will undoubtedly complain that Daunt is too shadowy to make for an effective villain, but to me his absences, like those of Professor Moriarty or T.S. Eliot's Macavity, speak more deliciously than any confrontation. Glyver's hunger for retribution takes on a hallucinatory quality that would probably vanish with a poof if he dragged Daunt into a prosaic showdown. Daunt becomes the phantom culprit for every injustice that Glyver has ever suffered, and so the imperative to destroy him trumps every other moral authority.
That's only one of the elegant and psychologically astute touches in "The Meaning of Night." The story is not convoluted and it offers few outright surprises. Still, the novel gathers an insistent momentum. This is really a tale of doom, as Glyver rightly suspects, and doom is the product of character; you can see it coming, but you can't stop it. The ambiguous world that Cox creates is actually pretty alien to the clear-cut moral divisions of Victorian fiction, but we know it, and we know it well.