Dr. Edward Courtine, a rather arrogant and conceited Oxbridge professor, has decided to spend a few days with an old friend before spending Christmas with relatives. The 'old friend' is Austin Fickling, a man the doctor was at university with in the mid 1800s. The two had a serious falling out many years ago but the doctor forced the friendship to continue, although the two men have not seen each other in decades.
Arriving in Thurchester, Dr. Courtine finds his friend behaving oddly and wonders if it was a mistake to come. After dinner Austin tells the doctor a strange story concerning the local cathedral and a double murder that took place two hundred years ago. It's thought that one of the murdered men, a Dr. Burgoyne, haunts the cathedral, and that recent works on the building may have disturbed the ghost.
Dr. Courtine is hoping to find a missing manuscript about the life of Alfred the Great in the cathedral library but also finds himself involved in rivalries between various church dignitaries and masters who teach in the choir school. A catastophe occurs when a local man who was planning to leave his fortune to the school is murdered. The doctor and his friend, Fickling, are unwittingly dragged in as witnesses and Courtine will have to decide where his loyalties lie.
I enjoyed this book but found it a bit confusing if I'm honest. I know it took me quite a few days to read as I was busy and when you don't read a book straight off but end up with breaks of a whole day and sometimes more, it really doesn't help with keeping up with what's going on in a complicated plot. Especially if your brain is as addled as mine is at times. There was a huge cast of characters to be remembered, two timelines - Victorian and the 1600s - three if you count the historical background of Alfred the Great, and a great deal of rambling about this and that.
The setting of a city, somewhere in the south of England, which had a large and influential cathedral was very atmospheric in a Victorian, M.R. James, sort of way. I took it in my mind to be Salisbury but it can't be as the houses in that city are not built right up to the cathedral and as far as I know, never have been. (I thought of Truro in Cornwall, where this is the case, but but I don't think it was meant to be that far from civilisation. LOL) Whatever, the setting and the political infighting, as regards the people who work in the cathedral and attached schools, and their constant bickering and attempts to do one another down, was very well done. Very true to life. I sort of wondered why Courtine didn't just up and go home, because it was very clear his 'friend', Austin, was Up To No Good right from the start, but there you go. If every character in every book did the sensible thing there would be no fictional stories.
The writing was excellent. As I said, very reminiscent of M.R. James and his way of telling a spooky, atmospheric tale but with much more history. If James had ever written a full-length novel I suspect it would have been just like this. I liked the history aspect a lot and always enjoy an author who doesn't presume stupidity on behalf of his reader. I'd love to read more by Charles Palliser, I gather the famous one that everyone was reading a couple of years ago is The Quincunx, another Dickensian, gothicky type mystery. I shall keep an eye out for it.