Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox








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Michael Cox is an expert in 19th century popular fiction, so when he chose to write his first novel, it comes as no surprise that he set it at that time and draws on all the structure and technique of that period. The Meaning of Night: A Confession is even presented with a preface that introduces it as if it were a lost manuscript. Protagonist Edward Glyver confesses at the beginning of the novel to murdering someone for practice to see if he was up to the same task when he faces his nemesis, Phoebus Gaunt. Along with the rest of the characters, neither Glyver nor Gaunt are pure good or evil, and Cox presents their secrets and their complex characters with great skill. Here’s an excerpt, from Chapter 2, pp. 38-40:


I lived alone, my only visitor being the woman, Mrs Grainger, who came from time to time to undertake some modest domestic chores. My work-table was littered with papers and note-books; a once handsome, but now faded, Turkey carpet covered most of the floor, and about the room were scattered several items of fur­niture brought from my mother's house in Dorset. From this apartment a door led off, first to a narrow bedroom lit by a small skylight, and then, beyond, to an even smaller space — really no more than a closet — that served as both wardrobe and wash-room.

The face that greeted me in the little cracked mirror that stood on a shelf above the wash-stand in this cubicle did not seem, to my objective gaze, to be the face of a cold-blooded murderer. The eyes looked back genially, and with calm intensity. Here was a face to trust, to confide in; yet I had despatched another human being with almost as little thought as I might crush an insect. Was I, then, some dissimulating devil in human form? No. I was but a man, a good man at heart, if the truth be told, driven to set right the wrong that had been done to me, absolved — even of murder — by the implacable fatalities to which I was then convinced my life had been subject. To me, this power was the Iron Master, forever forging the chains that bound me to actions I must take. My des­tiny, I believed, was to take back what was rightfully mine, what­ever the consequences.

I peered a little closer into the mirror. A long lean face, with large, heavy-lidded dark eyes; olive-coloured skin; a nose perhaps a little skewed, but still finely shaped; a mouth that carried the merest hint of a smile, even in repose; black hair swept back from the forehead, innocent of Macassar oil and abundant at the sides, but, I confess, receding fast, and greying a little at the temples. Fine moustachios. Very fine. Taken all in all, I believe that I stood before the world as a moderately handsome fellow.

But what was this? I moved my face closer to the grimy glass. There, on the very tip of my shirt collar, was a splash of dull red.

I stood for a moment, bending towards the mirror, gripped by a sudden fascinated fear. This dumb, yet still eloquent, witness to the night's activities in Cain-court took me completely by surprise. Its pursuit of me seemed like a violation, and I quickly reviewed the dangerous possibilities that it presented.

Had it been enough to betray me? Had one of the waiters in Quinn's noticed it when it had still been vivid and unequivocal, or the flower-seller when I had returned — foolishly, as it might now prove — to the scene of my crime? Had Bella observed it, despite the haste of passion? Any of these, on reading or hearing of the murder, might recall the presence of blood on my shirt, and sus­picion might thence be aroused. I looked more closely at the incriminating relic of my experiment.

It was insignificant enough in itself, certainly, though it consti­tuted a very world of meaning. Here was a remnant of the life­blood of the stranger I had happened upon in Threadneedle-street as he went about his business, all unknowing of what was to befall him. Had he been returning home to his wife and children after a day in the City, or on his way to join a company of friends for dinner? What was his name, and who would mourn him? How had he seen his life ending? (Not in a pool of gore in a public thoroughfare, I warrant.) Did he have parents still alive whose hearts would break at the terrible demise of their dear son? Like a soldier in battle, I had ignored such questions in the heat of action, as being irrelevant to the task in hand; but now, as I stared at the little spot of dried blood on my collar, I could not prevent them rushing insistently into my mind.

My newly purchased gloves were, I knew, unsullied. But were there other traces of the crime that I had failed to notice? I hastily took my great-coat from its peg and hurried into the sitting-room to spread it out on my work-table, snatching up an eye-glass from beneath a pile of papers as I did so.

By the strengthening light of morning, I pored over every inch of the garment, turning the material methodically, occasionally bringing a piece up close to my eye-glass, like a jeweller eagerly examining some object of great worth. Then I removed my jacket and trousers, then my waistcoat, shirt and neck-tie: all were sub­jected to the same frantic scrutiny. Finally, I inspected my hat and placed my boots on the table, bathed now in pale sunlight. I went meticulously over the upper surfaces and soles of each boot with a dampened handkerchief, using slow circular movements and stopping every few seconds to see whether the white linen had taken up any incriminating residue of blood.

Having satisfied myself that I could find no other physical traces that could link me to my victim, I returned to the wash-room, where I diligently soaked my shirt collar in cold water to remove the blood­stain. In a few minutes, washed, shaved, and combed, and with a clean shirt on my back, I prepared to face the day.

The Meaning of Night has the heft of some Victorian novels, coming it at over 650 pages. Thanks to Cox, a reader’s interest remains keen throughout, and those who want to indulge in something lush and dark will find much pleasure on these pages.


Steve Hopkins, May 15, 2008



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 in the June 2008 issue of Executive Times


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