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Partie II. Subversive or New Forms

Desperately looking for the truth: The traps and trappings of crime fiction in Charles Palliser’s The Unburied

Catherine Mari
p. 89-97


Tenant la promesse de son titre suggestif, The Unburied multiplie les crimes et tisse pas moins de trois énigmes situées à trois époques différentes (xie, xviie et xixe siècles). Relâchant la tension narrative propre au roman policier, le roman passe d’une intrigue à l’autre et accumule les théories censées expliquer les crimes au point de les rendre contradictoires et de les annuler ipso facto. The Unburied est ainsi construit sur un paradoxe qui consiste à utiliser la dynamique d’un genre obnubilé par la résolution d’une énigme, tout en en sapant facétieusement les règles. Les lois du genre sont aussi indirectement déstabilisées par le recours ostentatoire à des conventions poussées à l’extrême ou l’inclusion de motifs éculés. Ainsi, dans The Unburied, l’espace sinistrement confiné a un côté irréel tandis que la dimension temporelle hypertrophiée perd du coup toute signification. En outre, l’art consommé de la dissimulation menace l’équilibre entre l’histoire occulte du crime et celle exhibée de l’enquête. Finalement, en subvertissant ouvertement ou obliquement les règles du genre, The Unburied minimise la révélation et privilégie l’activité d’interprétation. Le roman de Palliser souligne ainsi, de façon post-moderne, la fugacité et l’indétermination de la vérité et il déplace l’intérêt du lecteur de la chose exhumée vers le processus d’exhumation.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 C. Pallisser, The Unburied.

1The dramatic and enigmatic title of Charles Palliser’s novel blatantly asserts kinship with crime fiction. Indeed, The Unburied1 is not sparing of crimes: it includes no fewer than three murder plots set in three different eras (the xith, xviith and xixth centuries), the one situated in the xixth century – the Stonex case – being contemporaneous with the main narrative entrusted to Dr Courtine. His account is itself embedded in a frame narrative, deceptively presented as a Foreword and an Afterword, which correct, some forty years later (just after the first World War), the version of events provided by Dr Courtine.

2In apparently total compliance with the fundamental requirement of the genre, The Unburied raises questions. It actually does so as early as the title which hints at some shameful secret or worse still, suggests the transgression of an age-old taboo. Paradoxically, the very multiplicity of the puzzles brings about a significant subversion of the genre as it destabilises basic rules of the novel of detection.

3In Palliser’s novel, subversion is actually twofold: it is achieved either through distancing of the conventions underlying crime fiction or, on the contrary, through conspicuous observance of these rules. The following study will therefore focus on the ways in which this destabilisation operates, with a view to assessing whether or not suspense is affected by it. In other words, it will address the question of how Palliser manages to retain the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief while challenging the precarious balance of a formulaic genre.

4To begin with a brief outline of this intricate novel, the main narrative opens with Dr Courtine visiting an old friend from university (Austin Fickling) in the imaginary town of Thurchester in the late 1870s. Courtine assumes that Fickling’s motive for inviting him for a few days is to renew their former friendship. On the first night, Fickling tells him the story of the town ghost, the ghost of Canon Burgoyne who met his death under unexplained circumstances. This predictably raises Courtine’s curiosity, as it is meant to. Concurrently, Courtine – a specialist in Alfredian studies – launches into some amateur sleuthing of his own as he attempts to track down an elusive xith century manuscript in the labyrinthine basement of the cathedral library. He does find the manuscript but its content disproves his theories about King Alfred’s exemplary life. Soon after this discovery, a rich and reclusive town-dweller – a Mr Stonex – is found murdered in his home, half an hour after Courtine has visited him with his friend Fickling. The excitement in the sleepy town is eventually at its peak when the origin of the foul smell in the cathedral is traced to a corpse – a two-hundred-year-old cadaver – who is none other than Canon Burgoyne. Dr Courtine’s attempts to see more clearly into these various mysteries bring to light petty rivalries as well as more serious perversions (such as the Canon’s guilty liking for young boys). The Stonex case is rapidly closed after the hasty charging of a convenient suspect in spite of numerous inconsistencies underlined in particular by the narrator. Although his account comes close to the truth, it fails to identify the actual murderer (Fickling’s homosexual friend) whose name is revealed so to speak peripherally in the Afterword by a chance witness, Philip Barthram, who was but a child at the time of the events.

Distancing through proliferation of plots

  • 2 J. Dubois, Le Roman policier et la modernité, p. 18.

5The interweaving of mysteries dating back to past centuries obviously runs counter to the principle of strict linearity which underlies the detective novel2 (Dubois 18). Palliser’s novel definitely departs from the usual pattern of progression from question to answer and subverts a genre typified by its singleness of purpose. It expands – rather than unfolds – through digressions, thereby referring to the xixth century tradition of the serialised novel exemplified by Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, or Eugène Sue. Sue’s Mystères deParis actually finds a humorous echo in The Thurchester Mystery, one of the many books the Stonex case has given rise to. The story about William Burgoyne which Fickling tells Courtine at the beginning of the novel is soon followed by Courtine’s account of Grimbald’s Life of Alfred the Great, which is succeeded by a summary of a Canon’s manuscript also concerned with the life of Burgoyne and his rival Freeth etc…Excerpts of Grimbald’s Life are even included within the novel. More strikingly still, The Unburied includes the whole text of “The Enchanted Princess”; a tale which Courtine had read at his friend’s and had found “profoundly disturbing” (159) and which is inserted by Barthram just before the Afterword. These stories prevent de facto the concentration on one mystery in particular. They have a levelling effect on the alleged central plot as they situate it in a historical perspective, on a level with long past or even legendary mysteries.

6Distance from the supposedly central story is also produced by the overall organisation of the novel. The “mise en abyme” technique, whose effect is both to enclose and to induce distance, is here used to striking effect as it doubly contradicts the linear progression of the detective novel. Not only does Barthram’s frame narrative relegate Dr Courtine’s Account to the past and transform it into a historical document but it also symbolically closes the story on itself. Indeed, the wheel goes full circle with Barthram’s providing the missing piece of the puzzle and returning to Thurchester “like a ghost haunting the place of its misery” (366), as if forever confined within the bounds of the story and the cycle of History.

Repetition as a factor of subversion

  • 3 Le Roman policier, p. 109.

7Moreover, despite this remoteness in time, the various plots present eerie similarities confirming the conception of History as cyclical repetition. These echoes result in the blurring of the specific contours of each story. Whether psychological, cultural or thematic, the resemblances point to an identical logic of murder and therefore to a similar type of solution / culprit. This is of course incongruous with the principle of originality fundamental to a genre which thrives on surprise3 (Dubois 109).For instance, Burgoyne’s liking for young boys is echoed in the main narrative by the Chancellor’s same perversion. Similarly, Austin Fickling alludes to a passion which has carried him “to perdition” (63). His somewhat pompous words, hinting at his consuming love for his male friend Slattery take up Burgoyne’s accents of despair when the latter refers – in a no less grandiloquent way – to his floundering in “a sty of pestilential filth” (127). More strikingly still, the century story of Freeth’s murder is duplicated in its entirety in the xixth century narrative as it is staged, in an uncannily realistic way, at Mr Stonex’s. This role-play game, which involves the principal characters of the xixth century plot (Courtine, Fickling and his friend Slattery), is so convincing that it results in the merging of different times and identities. Meant to mystify Courtine, the performance effectively highlights the similarity between the participants and the roles they play. Freeth who was used as “a bargaining counter” (193) is predictably played by Courtine who unknowingly serves as an alibi. The rendering of the scene is so life-like that the master of ceremonies himself is momentarily taken in by his own game. In a tell-tale way, he equates Freeth, who was to be butchered to death, with Mr Stonex whom he has just battered to death (189). While readers are not liable to experience quite the same confusion, it is nevertheless difficult “to disentangle the different threads” (343) of the story as the multiple echoes inevitably lead to superimposing and confusing the plots.

Elucidation: a fortuitous and protracted process

8Indeterminacy also results from the accumulation of theories intended to account for the various crimes. Coming from Cambridge, in other words an outsider in Thurchester, Dr Courtine is the privileged receiver of all the theories concerning in particular Burgoyne’s death or the murder of his rival, Dean Freeth. Quite a number of characters have a go at the art of investigation. This logically leads to a profusion of differing versions of the same events, which naturally questions their validity as well as the impartiality of the amateur detectives. We are for instance led to distrust Dr Sheldrick’s account of Burgoyne’s life as it comically plays down what he calls the Canon’s “little personal failings” (119) which – as we well know – were the same as his. History is thus warped by the characters and reflects their personality. Revealingly, Courtine’s Account does not provide any final and therefore indisputable version of Freeth’s death.

  • 4 D. Porter, "Backward Construction and the Art of Suspense", p. 329
  • 5 Ibid.

9The existence of a final truth is actually put to the test in The Unburied. The ellipsis or “logico-temporal gap”4 (Porter 329) at the root of the detective novel is only unsatisfactorily or belatedly filled. Courtine’s discovery of the manuscript proves frustrating as it shows the unsoundness of his theories (304) while the Stonex case is solved as if by chance. The “hidden story of the crime” is brought to light under so many guises that one is at a loss to recognise its original appearance –or, in Dennis Porter’s terms – to “re-establish” once and for all “sequence and causality”5 (Porter 329).

Who’s who? or the questioning of the ‘hermeneutic square’

  • 6 Le roman policier.
  • 7 The Unburied, p. 16, 21, 33…

10The elusiveness of the truth is echoed in the instability of the “hermeneutic square”, as defined by Jacques Dubois6 (92). The four textual functions which delimit it (detective, victim, suspect(s) and culprit(s)) appear blurred and interchangeable. I have already mentioned the profusion of potential detectives, actually as numerous as the versions of the stories, as well as the multiplicity and confusing similarity of the plots which leads to a round dance of victims, suspects and culprits. If we concentrate now on Dr Courtine’s case, his most apparent role is that of a detective. We actually witness the transformation process from innocent and unworldly academic to imaginative and unevenly perceptive investigator. His inadequacy as a detective is a constant source of humour. Contrasting with such renowned fellow detectives as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Courtine is no reliable decoder of signs, which is a euphemism since he keeps blundering and misinterpreting facts. At the beginning of the novel, he is convinced that Fickling wants to atone for the wrongs he has allegedly inflicted upon him and he repeatedly mistakes the latter’s indifference towards him for a form of embarrassed delicacy7 (16, 21, 33…). He appears totally out of place in the scheming world of Thurchester and his innocent remarks are unwittingly funny. In order to lighten Fickling’s gloomy mood, he exclaims at breakfast on the first morning: “What a murderous little town!”(72). Later on in the novel, the police, who by now know him as the main witness of the Stonex case, let him enter to have a look at the newly-discovered corpse “as if”, Courtine remarks, “I had a special right of access to dead bodies” (239).

11In addition, his intellectual faculties are unprofessionally impaired by an unbounded imagination which leads him to put forward wild theories. At the Inquest, for instance, he absurdly surmises that Mr Stonex has killed – and then disguised himself as – his brother in order to inherit his own will (283). Courtine effectively deflates the glamorous role of detective. However, his unconventionally comic shortcomings do not lessen the reader’s interest in the plot, precisely because the distance induced by humour remains confined to this particular character.

  • 8 A.S. Byatt, Possession, p. 492-6.

12His own investigation, centred on the search for a manuscript, remains on a purely academic level and appears as a reduced and comic version of the murder plots. Indeed Courtine’s presence throws light upon the ‘small world’ of the university and the petty rivalries between academics competing for fame and promotion. The Unburied is at times unmistakably reminiscent of the satiric vein of the campus novel. Envious of Dr Courtine, Dr Locard, an expert at “bluffs and counterbluffs” (168), literally puts his Cambridge colleague on the wrong track by directing him to the library basement among thousands of mixed-up, dusty documents. The end justifies the means, even if the unearthing (or should I say unburying?) of secret documents remains figurative in Palliser’s novel and thus appears as a softened version of A.S. Byatt’s single-minded academic8 who, driven by an irresistible compulsion to recover the love letters of a nineteenth century poet, proceeds to dig the poet’s lover’s grave. Characteristically, Courtine repeatedly remarks he gets close to the truth but he nonetheless never actually discloses it. His status as a detective is also occasionally called into question as he is at times humorously cast as suspect (363) or even culprit as he remarks on his murderous drives towards Fickling (298) or acknowledges in himself “the sense of evil” (317).

The overlapping of genres

13The instability of the textual functions is echoed by the instability of the genre. TheUnburied hovers between several literary models: in addition to its references to the xixth century serialised novel and the campus novel, it presents unmistakably gothic elements. The haunted monastery is here replaced by a haunted medieval cathedral. The perverted desires of Lewis’s monk find a counterpart in Burgoyne’s shameful passion for a male adolescent. Courtine is even mystified by an eerie apparition in the snow (31) which momentarily shatters his rationalism: “I had seen William Burgoyne […]. That meant that all that I believed – all the decent, rational, progressive ideas by which I lived—were childish games that could only be played in the daylight”(153). The downward movements of the characters who plummet to their death from the top of the Cathedral tower or, in a less spectacular way, plunge “into the darkness of the Close” (333) or the unwelcoming library basement, also call to mind, even if in a caricatured manner, the vertical architecture of gothic literature and its attending symbolism.

14Moreover, The Unburied also playfully flirts with the Bildungsroman by substituting for the triumphant ending of the detective novel, the main narrator’s observations upon his transformation and new departure in life: “Now I realised that I was free […] The ghost (meaning the ghost of his unfaithful wife) had been laid”. He also adds that he is now ready “to start a new chapter in [his] life” (335). The play on the word “chapter”, which may be figurative or literal or may refer to the priests of a cathedral, confirms the author’s tongue-in-cheek tone.

Foregrounding (parodying?) familiar topoï

  • 9 Le Roman policier, p. 3.

15The destabilisation of the genre thus greatly derives from indeterminacy whether on the level of the stories, of their interpretation or of the literary models it refers to, but it is also obliquely achieved through the foregrounding of familiar conventions or worn-out motifs. The necessity of a confined space9 is here carried to an extreme. Echoing the miry, fog-bound London of Bleak House, the town of Thurchester is wrapped in fog, darkness and foul air (10). It is reached after an exhausting journey on the train. The ancient houses huddle together around the Cathedral whose Close is the scene of the whole narrative. Even the atmosphere of Fickling’s rooms is “very close” (32).

  • 10 The Unburied, p. 100.

16The setting of The Unburied is evidently not concerned with realistic objectivity. Like Dickens’s Court of Chancery, the town of Thurchester is transformed by pathetic fallacy and therefore conspicuously metaphorical: the foul smell in Austin’s apartments or in the Cathedral obviously attests to the presence of evil. The Cathedral actually becomes a blatant emblem of corruption: it “squat[s] like a great beast in the black cage of the Close” (137), or “looms up disconcertingly large” (150). It immediately calls to Courtine’s mind images “of bones and flesh rotting beneath the stones” (15).The insistence on gloom is such that the setting takes on a theatrical dimension10 (Dubois 3) which inevitably draws the reader’s attention to the process of writing itself.

17The time element is also brought into the foreground. The Unburied apparently complies with the habitual fast pace of detective fiction, judging by the titles Dr Courtine gives to his chapters which keep the count of days: three days in all, from “Tuesday Evening” to “Friday Night”. However, this display of speed is obviously contradicted by the length of the narrative (some 350 pages) and the forty-year ellipsis between the end of “Dr Courtine’s Account” and the actual elucidation of the mystery in the Afterword.

  • 11 Backward Construction, p. 328.

18The Unburied also self-consciously emphasises the very mechanisms or structure of a genre which is based, according to Raymond Chandler, on the conjunction of two tales, one of which (the story of the investigation)11 gradually uncovers the other (the hidden story of the crime) (Porter 328). Concealment is thus essential to the classic detective story. It is playfully carried to an extreme in Palliser’s novel where equivocation and evasion are the rule. The characters are either confusingly allusive or systematically reticent. In this respect, the brevity of Mr Stonex’s sister’s answers in the Foreword is almost caricatured. They appear all the more sibylline to the reader who does not know the first person narrator’s identity nor for that matter that of his addressee. The art of the implicit is actually so consummate that it subversively threatens to hinder the elucidation of the mystery which is in any case notably delayed.

19Scheming, the corollary of concealment, is also made truly conspicuous, not because the plots reach Machiavellian proportions but simply because the narrative keeps referring to – and therefore underlining – the activity itself. Fickling’s friend is referred to as “the Arch Conspirator” (374) while Courtine remarks that Dr Locard “[has] been playing with [him] like an angler with a fish” (263) and eventually realises that Fickling –whose name should have been a warning to him- “[has] betrayed and made use of [him], exploiting [their] former friendship” (295). The very profusion of clues logically leads the reader to be suspicious of their validity (since they cannot all be meaningful). This is in particular the case of the time clues which literally invade the main narrative and blatantly emphasize the genre’s reliance on chronology. The inclusion of “The Enchanted Princess” betokens the same obsessive attempt at accuracy, a characteristic feature of detective fiction whose basic postulate is that any detail may – a priori – make sense, in other words, may be a clue. This postulate leads to what Jacques Dubois calls an “effet de soupçon” (a generalised suspicion) which is here obviously caricatured.

20Clues are at times playfully manifest, which also undermines their significance. They are simultaneously literal and figurative, objects and symbols. Keys, for instance, first appear in the Foreword where they are melodramatically presented as “the keys to a mystery” (5). They seem to crop up everywhere in The Unburied. Similarly, a mysterious package appears (34) and disappears (45), making it impossible for the most absent-minded reader to miss the clue. Closely conforming to Freudian theories and to their adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock, dreams in Palliser’s novel prove to be unsurprisingly tell-tale nightmares: Fickling’s feverish nightmare (69) on Courtine’s first night in Thurchester, announces in veiled but accurate terms Mr Stonex’s murder and hints at the investigator’s identity. Last but not least, the mysterious inscription in front of late Mr Stonex’s place predictably functions as a cryptogram which marks the beginning of Courtine’s investigation and leads him to trace hidden meanings.

Suspense and “plaisir du texte”

  • 12 R. Alter, Partial Magic, p. 30.

21Thus, Palliser’s novel openly or obliquely subverts basic conventions of crime fiction by distancing them or, on the contrary, complying with them to excess. However, the multiple distortions of the genre do not lessen the suspense. They increase the complexity and richness of the classic puzzle: the text challenges and thus engages the reader’s attention with a multi-layered diachronic plot and simultaneously offers literary echoes which enlarge the scope of detective fiction. Moreover, the foregrounding of certain rules of the genre is a wink at the reader who is invited to participate in a game and reminded at the same time of its artificial nature and therefore of its limits. Nevertheless the novel does not develop into sustained parody; it never turns into consistent contradiction or double-voicing which would alienate the reader. The self-conscious use of the trappings of crime fiction merely underlines, in Robert Alter’s terms12 (30), their “contrivance” while leaving them “usable”, in other words, at the novelist’s disposal. The effect on the reader is that of a stylised reality, a reality whose interest lies both in itself and in the means of representation it involves.

  • 13 Le Roman policier, p. 79.
  • 14 R. Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte, p. 20.

22The Unburied plays down the revelation but does not for all that renounce the dynamic of narrative suspense: the novel fully claims its condition of “texte piégé”13 (Dubois 79), that of a predetermined text organised by the eventual resolution of the mystery. Therefore, the reader is doubly trapped, being irresistibly drawn into the game of elucidation and, at the same time, being forced to discover that truth is neither unique nor final. Thus Palliser’s novel does not frustrate the reader’s desire to know the end, or, to use Roland Barthes’s risqué analogy, “l’espoir de voir le sexe”14 (20), but it unconventionally diverts interest from solution to interpretation, in others words, from the unburied to the unburying process.

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Alter, Robert, Partial Magic, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975.

Barthes, Roland, Le Plaisir du texte, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1973.

Byatt, A. S., Possession, London, Vintage, 1991.

Dubois, Jacques, Le Roman policier ou la modernité, Collection “Le texte à l’œuvre”, Paris, Nathan, 1992.

Palliser, Charles, The Unburied, London, Phoenix House, 1999.

Porter, Dennis, “Backward Construction and the Art of Suspense”, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1981.

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1 C. Pallisser, The Unburied.

2 J. Dubois, Le Roman policier et la modernité, p. 18.

3 Le Roman policier, p. 109.

4 D. Porter, "Backward Construction and the Art of Suspense", p. 329

5 Ibid.

6 Le roman policier.

7 The Unburied, p. 16, 21, 33…

8 A.S. Byatt, Possession, p. 492-6.

9 Le Roman policier, p. 3.

10 The Unburied, p. 100.

11 Backward Construction, p. 328.

12 R. Alter, Partial Magic, p. 30.

13 Le Roman policier, p. 79.

14 R. Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte, p. 20.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Catherine Mari, « Desperately looking for the truth: The traps and trappings of crime fiction in Charles Palliser’s The Unburied », Sillages critiques, 6 | 2004, 89-97.

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Catherine Mari, « Desperately looking for the truth: The traps and trappings of crime fiction in Charles Palliser’s The Unburied », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2009, consulté le 28 janvier 2020. URL :

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Catherine Mari

Maître de conférences en littérature anglaise, Université du Pays de l’Adour, Pau.

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