Murder, mystery, suspense in Victorian London? Hasn't that been done before somewhere? Well, yes, but perhaps never as entertainingly as in this debut novel.
Must resist urge to quote opening line. Must resist urge. Must...oh, darn it.
'After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper.'
No 'best of times, worst of times' preamble here. Both the author and his protagonist go straight for the jugular...the former with a killer of an opening line, the latter with a carving knife. It's a killer of a meme as well, garnering hundreds of Google hits, even though the book is so newly released. Michael Cox, with this exceptional debut novel, clearly knows what he's doing.
The story begins, and frequently returns to, one of our favourite places: the half-lit, fog-bound streets of Victorian London. Our murderer is one Edward Glapthorne - or two Edward Glyver or three Edward Duport or...any one of five aliases used throughout the book; best just call him Edward. After the foul opening deed, Edward sets out to explain his motives to posterity - a confession that takes hundreds of pages and numerous acts of skillfully assembled epistolary. It's a rambling tale of a man wronged, an inheritance lost, and a long-meditated revenge. Imagine the Count of Monte Cristo, in London, with less money, more whores and a sharp knife.
Throughout the novel, Edward and his nemesis, Phoebus Daunt, dance around each other's machinations whilst vying for the affections of the beautiful Emily Carteret and the favour of an old Lord. It's artfully balanced so that Edward, Daunt and Emily are all, in some way, both loveable and despicable. The settings are equally polarised. We're bounced with jarring, powerful contrast between the idyllic country estate of Evenwood in Northamptonshire and the gloomy, vice-ridden streets of 1850's London. The latter is particularly well-realised, often falling off the page like a lost scene from Jerrold and Doré:
All around, the city thundered and roared. At every level of human existence, from the barest subsistence to luxurious indolence, its inhabitants crossed and re-crossed the clogged and dirty arteries of the great unsleeping beast, each according to his station - trudging through the murk and mud, insulated in curtained carriages, swaying knee to knee in crowded omnibuses, or perched precariously on rumbling high-piled carts - all engrossed in their own private purposes.
These worlds of rich and poor intersect in a way familiar from many a Victorian sensation novel. Cox delves further into the genre by setting up a complicated web of happenstance, circumstance and conspiracy, as wondrously improbable as the best of Dickens or Collins. To quote one early reviewer: 'it's more Wilkie Collins than Wilkie Collins'.
This is a monster of a book by any measure: over a kilogram of prose, 600 pages, 180 characters, and a cornucopia of footnotes, quotations and literary paraphernalia. We don't know what the SI units of enjoyment are, but the novel weighs in heavily on this score too. Its only downside is that you'll never fit it on the Tube. So take time off work to properly devour it, or The Meaning of Night will swiftly become the meaning of your night.
The Meaning of Night is published by John Murray, £17.99. (Though stay tuned, as we'll have a signed copy to give away next week.)