The Meaning of Night
By Michael Cox
John Murray, London, 2006
'After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.'
And so begins the confession of Edward Glyver (also known as Edward Glapthorn or Duport, or sometimes Ernest Geddington), scholar, bibliophile, opium taker, frequent visitor to brothels, and murderer. Set predominantly in mid-nineteenth century London, The Meaning of Night is a tale of betrayal, treachery, thwarted ambition, obsession and revenge.
We learn from the preface, written by the fictional editor, J. J. Antrobus, Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction at the University of Cambridge, that the handwritten confession (bound in dark-red morocco) was given to the university in 1948 as part of an anonymous bequest. Antrobus is also responsible for the great number of scholarly footnotes that appear throughout the book (which I thought were a wonderful touch).
The opening sentence (and who could fail to be intrigued by it?) refers to Glyver's cold-blooded murder of a complete stranger on Threadneedle Street; a practise run in his quest to do away with his adversary, the celebrated poet Phoebus Rainsford Daunt. Daunt, we are told, is responsible for Glyver's expulsion from Eton and for robbing him of his rightful place as the heir to Evenwood, a stately home (with a marvellous library) in Northamptonshire, and the fortune that would have gone with it. He is also Glyver's rival for the affections of Miss Emily Carteret.
Phoebus Daunt is a rather shadowy character, rarely seen or heard from; we are told that he is a con man who seems able to charm the birds from the trees whilst thwarting Glyver's every attempt to get back what is rightfully his. He is, according to Glyver, a 'deep-dyed sharp: a practised chizzler'. But as the story unfolds, you find yourself wondering if Glyver's version of events can really be trusted. He has, after all, murdered an innocent man just to see if he can do it; his sense of morality is questionable, so why not his sanity? And Daunt's shadowy character provides few clues to begin with to help us decide whether or not he really is the evil villain that Glyver describes. I was, for some time, torn between believing that Glyver was a few slices short of a loaf and wanting to do away with Phoebus Rainsford Daunt myself.
I don't want to give too much away, so I'll say no more about the plot. What I will say is that I was utterly incapable of putting this book down once I'd picked it up. I was transported back to the foggy streets of mid Victorian London (and the 'faery splendor' of Evenwood) and I was perfectly happy to stay there and not come back. The intrigues, twists and turns had me gripped; I was absolutely enthralled. I loved the character names, such as Simeon Shakeshaft and Josiah Pluckrose... wonderful. And, cold-blooded murderer or not, I couldn't help warming to poor old Edward Glyver; we bibliophiles must stick together, as I'm sure he would have agreed.
As I absolutely loved this book, I'm giving it five gold stars.
I also highly recommend the unabridged audiobook (2006) read by David Timson, which lasts 22 hours 55 minutes. Listen to it late at night, preferably by an open fire, with nothing but a glass of Port for company. Incredibly atmospheric and utterly marvellous.