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Original Essays | June 20, 2014

Lauren Owen: IMG The Other Vampire



It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches... Continue »

Original Essays | July 22, 2014

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    Tigerman

    Nick Harkaway 9780385352413

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Powell's Q&A

Michael Cox

Describe your latest project.
The Meaning of Night is a historical novel, set mainly in the mid-1850s, that attempts to re-create the literary ambience of mid-Victorian Sensation fiction — in particular the storytelling qualities of two of the great initiators of Sensation fiction: Wilkie Collins (in The Woman in White), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (in Lady Audley's Secret). As a first-person narrative, it also draws on Dickens's Great Expectations and David Copperfield.

The story is told through the voice of the central character, Edward Glyver, bibliophile, scholar, and, later, murderer, who discovers by chance that he is the lost legitimate heir to one of the most ancient and wealthiest peerages in England. Obsessed by his discovery, he will stop at nothing to win back a prize that he believes is rightfully his.

The story opens in October 1854, when Glyver murders an innocent man in Cain Court, Strand. From the very first line, the reader is therefore confronted with a dramatic question: why did Glyver — articulate, highly intelligent, and apparently completely sane — go out that foggy October night with the express intention of killing a complete stranger?

As the answer to this question is slowly revealed, the reader is plunged into Glyver's darkly ambivalent world, where nothing is quite as it seems, and where answers only lead to more questions.

Moving between the streets of mid-Victorian London — dark, dirty, and dangerous — and a magical, almost otherworldly country house, Evenwood in Northamptonshire, we follow Glyver's increasingly desperate attempts to prove who he really is and claim his patrimony. For even as he appears to be drawing ever closer to his goal, he is driven irresistibly towards catastrophe by the machinations of his deadly rival, the poet-criminal Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, and by his consuming passion for the beautiful but enigmatic Emily Carteret.

Glyver's is a story of betrayal and treachery, of death and delusion, of ruthless obsession and ambition. Piece by piece, and with many twists and turns, the jigsaw falls into place, as Glyver writes his confession for posterity.


  1. The Meaning of Night: A Confession
    $5.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Whenever I'm asked this question, I always recommend people read the novels and short stories of Italian-born Rafael Sabatini (1875–1950), one of the greatest writers of historical fiction in English, whose work includes The Sea Hawk (1915), Scaramouche (1921; an international bestseller), and Captain Blood: His Odyssey (1922; an even bigger success, made into a film starring Errol Flynn).

Sabatini's own literary models included Dumas, Scott, and Jules Verne. His best novels, for me, provide a gold standard for writing historical fiction. Though they are impeccably researched, Sabatini never lets his research show; and he is a master of plot and pace, dramatic incident and — especially in his short stories — enticing first lines ("Sir Geoffrey Swayne was hanged at Tyburn." — from "The Risen Dead," 1907; "To follow the early career of Capoulade down its easy descent of the slopes of turpitude were depressing and unprofitable." — from "The Opportunist," 1920).

If you're after historical adventure and romance at its very best, delivered by a master storyteller, then read Sabatini. You won't be disappointed. I'd start with Scaramouche, and then Captain Blood. For the short stories, seek out The Fortunes of Casanova, and Other Stories, selected and introduced by Jack Adrian, with a preface by George MacDonald Fraser (Oxford University Press, 1994).

What is your favorite literary first line?
Not precisely a first line, because it consists of a series of evocative single words and phrases; but the opening of Dickens's Bleak House makes me tingle every time I read it: "London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather..."

What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, what sign would you change to and why?
I'm a Scorpio (born 25 October), and, as far as I can tell, pretty typical — intuitive, creative, mentally energetic, and determined, but also obsessive, secretive, and capable of resentment. I'm often surprised how closely descriptions of traditional Scorpionic characteristics seem to apply to me — surprised because I'm generally skeptical about astrology. Despite the more negative aspects, I wouldn't want to swap with another sign. I quite like the thought of carrying round a sting in my tail.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Fast cars. I know I shouldn't, but I can't help it. It goes back a long way. My father (in his eighties) still has his Jaguar E-type, and as a nineteen-year-old I was driving around in a Lotus Elan 2+2S. That sort of thing spoils a chap, and I've always found it hard to drive "normal" cars — though almost anything you can buy these days goes faster than some of the sports cars I used to drive in the 1960s and 1970s. I'd like to indulge myself with one last mean machine (a BMW M5?), but haven't yet taken the plunge. Perhaps I'm too old for this sort of thing after all. But the urge remains.

Why do you write?
A rather large question. Short answer: because I've always had an urge to. I've long suffered from what you might call "novel envy." I think, "If other people can write fiction, why can't I?" However, I also get depressed when I force myself to read someone like Sarah Waters and see how good they are. Then I think, "I'll never be as good as this," and this stops me writing. Luckily, I can return to the 19th century to refresh my ambition. Dead Victorians are uncompetitive.

At junior school I had a natural facility for what was then called "composition" (i.e. writing stories); and when I was about eight or nine, I wrote my first extended tale, a Buchanesque novelette called "The Purple Claw," inspired by a visit to the Scottish Highlands. At Cambridge, I wrote a terrible, ego-soaked novel called "Green for a Season" (about a Cambridge undergraduate — surprise, surprise); and then, in about 1973, began to assemble what eventually became The Meaning of Night — my 30-year attempt to become a novelist in emulation of the great Victorian and early 20th-century storytellers, like Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, and Sabatini, that I've read and admired since childhood.

I suppose my main motivation for writing — which mirrors the kind of novels I've always preferred to read — is simply to escape, as I write, into an imagined world through the power of story. This is what I've tried to offer readers of The Meaning of Night, and it's why the figure of Scheherazade, in The Arabian Nights (another childhood love), is one of the presiding presences in the novel. Her ability to stave off execution by the simple expedient of telling a tale every night should remind us of the intrinsic and primal power of storytelling.

What do you dislike most?
Selfish, inconsiderate, disrespectful people who give no thought to the consequences of their actions — even if it's just throwing a piece of litter out of a car window. I have an essentially Victorian temperament, with a strong sense of duty and order (both personal and civic). I get upset by anarchic and self-regarding behaviour.

Dogs, cats, budgies or turtles?
Cats (by a whisker(!) over dogs). I will always cross a road to make the acquaintance of a cat. I find them fascinating in every way, and superior to many human beings in so many more. spacer

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