The Quincunx: A Novel

The Quincunx: A Novel

by Charles Palliser

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An extraordinary modern novel in the Victorian tradition, Charles Palliser has created something extraordinary—a plot within a plot within a plot of family secrets, mysterious clues, low-born birth, high-reaching immorality, and, always, always the fog-enshrouded, enigmatic character of 19th century—London itself.

“So compulsively absorbing that reality disappears . . . One is swept along by those enduring emotions that defy modern art and a random universe: hunger for revenge, longing for justice and the fantasy secretly entertained by most people that the bad will be punished and the good rewarded.”The New York Times

“A virtuoso achievement . . . It is an epic, a tour de force, a staggeringly complex and tantalizingly layered tale that will keep readers engrossed in days. . . . The Quincunx will not disappoint you. It is, quite simply, superb.”Chicago Sun-Times

“A bold and vivid tale that invites the reader to get lost in the intoxicating rhythms of another world. And the invitation is irresistible.”San Francisco Chronicle

“A remarkable book . . . In mood, color, atmosphere and characters, this is Charles Dickens reincarnated . . . It is an immersing experience.”Los Angeles Times Book Review

“To read the first pages is to be trapped for seven-hundred odd more: you cannot stop turning them.”The New Yorker

“Few books, at most a dozen or two in a lifetime, affect us this way. . . . For sheer intricacy and ingenuity, for skill and clarity of storytelling, it is the kind of book readers wait for, a book to get lost in.”The Philadelphia Inquirer

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804152402
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/19/2014
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 800
Sales rank: 245,418
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Charles Palliser's historical novels include The Quincunx, The Unburied, and Rustication. His fiction has been translated into a dozen languages. Palliser’s The Quincunx was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He has written plays for BBC Radio and the stage. Prior to becoming a full-time writer in 1990, he taught literature and creative writing at universities in the UK and the USA. A graduate of Oxford University, Palliser lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

It must have been late autumn of that year, and probably it was towards dusk for the sake of being less conspicuous. And yet a meeting between two professional gentlemen representing the chief branches of the law should surely not need to be concealed.
Let us imagine, then, how Law might have waited upon Equity.
Approaching a particular house in a street near Lincoln’s-inn-fields, Law, embodied in the person of a small, pale-faced gentleman of about forty years of age with a large head, mounts the steps and rings the bell. The door is immediately opened by a young clerk. The visiter steps inside, is relieved of hat, great-coat, and gloves, and is then ushered into a small dark room at the rear of the house. There he sees a figure seated at a little table at the other end of the chamber. The clerk noiselessly withdraws. The gentleman who is already there rises with the briefest of bows and indicates a chair opposite him before the fire. The newcomer seats himself while the elder man takes his chair again and brings his gaze to bear upon his guest. Equity is some fifteen years the elder, with a high-coloured complexion, a lofty nose and a face most remarkable for a pair of black bushy eyebrows.
There is a long pause and at last the newcomer clears his throat: “It has been an honour, sir, to receive and obey your summons.”
There is a note of polite interrogation in this observation but Equity appears not to hear it for he continues to gaze at his guest.
After another minute Law asks nervously: “May I know how I can be of assistance?”
“Did you take the precautions I requested?” the host asks.
“Indeed I did. I am certain that no-one followed me here.”
“Good. Then our meeting has probably been kept from the knowledge of a third party.”
“A third party? My dear sir, you intrigue me. To whom do you refer?”
“I shall ask the questions,” the other gentleman replies with only the slightest emphasis on the pronoun.
His guest flushes.
The elder gentleman takes something from his pocket and says: “Now, you have a client whose name I have written on this piece of paper which I ask you to be good enough to read.” He holds it out for a few moments and when Law has looked at it and nodded in confirmation, he replaces it: “Very well. Then I will lose no time in coming to the point: the document which your client possesses has the capacity to damage very materially the interests of the party for whom I have the honour to act, and in view of this …”
He breaks off for on Law’s face is an expression of manifest bewilderment: “My good sir, I assure you I know nothing of such a document.”
“Come, come. Not two weeks past your client sent a copy of it to us demanding money and giving your name for correspondence.”
“That may be so … that is to say, I am certain that it is so if you state it to be. But I beg you to believe that I am no more than a receiving-office in this transaction.”
“What do you mean?”
“That I merely forward letters addressed to me in my client’s name. I know no more of that individual’s affairs than a letter-carrier does of the correspondence he collects and delivers.”
The other gazes at him and says: “I am prepared to accept that that may be so.” The younger gentleman smiles but his expression alters at the next words: “Then tell me the whereabouts of your client.”
“My dear sir, I cannot.”
“Beg your pardon, I’m forgetting to put up my stake,” the elder says and brings out from his pocket something that crackles as he lays it on the table.
Law leans forward slightly to look at it. There is surely an expression of yearning on his face. Then he says: “I assure you, my dear sir, I am quite unable to oblige you.”
“Oh-ho!” the elder gentleman exclaims. “You think to bargain with me, do you? I warn you not to try it or you will find that I am able to apply quite other inducements.”
“No indeed, sir,” the other stammers. “You entirely mistake my meaning. Your generosity quite overwhelms me and I only wish I could deserve it. However, it is wholly impossible for me to assist you.”
“I advise you not to attempt any of your games with me, my good fellow,” the other says in a brutally contemptuous tone. “I have made enquiries enough to know how ill these high-principled scruples become you. I’ve ‘smoked your lay’ — isn’t that how they call it in the jargon of your clients?”
The other gentleman becomes quite pale. He begins to rise from his chair but his eyes fall on the thing on the table and he stays in his seat.
Equity goes on: “Do you wish me to give you the catalogue — or perhaps I should say, calendar — of activities in which I know you to be involved?”
When Law makes no answer Equity continues: “A little brokerage of doubtful bills, rather more squeezing of debtors, and a great deal of tutoring witnesses? Is that not so?”
The other gentleman answers with dignity: “You have misunderstood me, my dear sir. I merely meant that I do not possess the information you seek. If I had it I would most willingly give it to you.”
“Do you take me for a fool? How do you communicate with your client, then?”
“Through a third-party to whom I forward my client’s letters.”
“That’s better,” the other growls. “Who?”
“A gentleman of the highest respectability who has been some years retired from my branch of our profession.”
“Most intriguing. Now be good enough to write down that gentleman’s name and address for I cannot identify him, even though your branch of the profession is hardly replete with gentlemen to whom that description applies.”
The other laughs shortly and joylessly. Then he takes out a pocket-book, writes “Martin Fortisquince, Esqr., No. 27 Golden-square”, tears out the leaf and hands it to the other gentleman.
Equity takes the paper from him and without looking at it says abruptly: “In the event of my needing to speak to you again we will communicate as before.” He reaches into a dark corner of the room beside his chair and tugs gently at a bell-rope.
Law rises with his eye on the thing on the table. Seeing this Equity carelessly pushes it towards him and he slips it into his pocket. Just as the door opens and the clerk appears again, Law hesitantly reaches out his hand towards his host. He, however, appears not to notice the gesture and Law hastily returns his hand to his pocket. The clerk ushers him to the door, restores to him his hat, great-coat, and gloves, and in a moment he finds himself out in Cursitor-street again. He sets off at a rapid pace occasionally looking anxiously behind him. When he has rounded several corners he draws into a quiet door-way and removes the package from his pocket. He cautiously counts it, counts it again, puts it back, and then sets off again more slowly.

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Quincunx 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This hefty volume is a real page-turner--I was glued to it for about 4 days--as well as being an extraordinary tour de force. The plot is an intricate and far-flung labyrinth with unexpected twists at every turn. If you like to savor puzzles, this is a great one. It's patterned on a Victorian novel, and its scrupulously accurate descriptions of the wretched underside of Victorian society are extraordinarily vivid. Like a Dickens novel, it's populated with striking characters from all walks of life, especially the underclass. And the writing is very good. But there was one aspect that put a damper on my enjoyment and stood out as a striking anachronism for a book aspiring to Victorian novelhood. The chapters have the kind of bouncy, chirpy period titles like those I remember from the cheerful books of my youth like Little Women and they led me to expect a certain Victorian-style heartiness in the tone of the story. However, except for the first section, the rest of the novel is a story of sheer unrelieved misery, evil, and hopelessness. The author seems to have bent over backwards to systematically demolish every prospect of help or escape and eradicate any possibility of lasting happiness or hope, no matter how small. Even Dickens' grimmest novels offer comic relief, and they usually offer a ray of hope or a chance of happiness at the end for some decent character or other as well. Victorian writers lived in an optimistic era, and in the books I'm familiar with, glimmers of that optimism are generally evident in their work. (Villette is a striking exception, for those who like gloom.) It's not that I prefer saccharin endings, but in my view, the relentless blackness of the Quincunx's worldview reflects more of the sardonic mindset of a'90's novelist than it does a Victorian one. Whether this is supposed to make it more 'realistic' to match the taste of contemporary readers, I don't know, but I don't think that's necessarily achieved by taking the opposite extreme in an effort to flee conventional happy endings. In any event, the novel's inexorable woefulness wore me down after a while. In the end, it left me feeling unusually depressed and also a little like I'd been had. I thought I was reading a novel that was supposed to be faithful to the spirit as well as the form of a 19th century novel, but at the end I discovered that it was actually a bit of turn-of-the-millenium nihilism tricked out in elaborate Victorian duds.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is perhaps one of the 10 best books I have ever read. It is an epic read but well worth the time you need to devote to it. There are many twists and turns, plots and counterplots that will keep you guessing and hanging on until the very end.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One other theme of this book: the hero of the tale is a young boy whose adventures we trace until late teenhood (although his exact age is never made explicit). He is driven nearly mad by the quirks of fate, the conspiracies, the puzzles of the lost will and codicil, the elaborate family history, on and on. Even though I'm now 50, I resonated with his puzzlement and perplexity. My teen years (1960s!) were pretty confusing and I seemed to be in a perpetual fog. If you are a confused teen, or want to understand the bewilderment of life that some teens experience, this book will help. It inspired me in my role as a mental health counselor to have greater empathy for the perils of life in the teenage zone. I read mostly non-fiction, so to finish this 700+ page novel speaks to Palliser's great skill and incredible research of early 1800s London. One last note: family therapists frequently compile what are called "genograms" of the family tree, a visual map of who is related to whom and who had conflicts with whom, and so forth. I'm tempted to reread this novel and compile a genogram for John (the young boy/teen). Charles Palliser, if you're listening: Has one been done before? Your rough draft of plot lines, relationships, and characters must have taken up several walls (or gigabytes). Great job!
Guest More than 1 year ago
With more than a passing nod to Dickens and Collins, Palliser has written a fabulous pastiche of the Victorian Mystery Novel, pioneered by the above. Add to that all the degredation of 19th Century London, tricksters, prostitutes, body snatchers et al, this book has everything.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I devoured this richly detailed book, relishing the tale as well as it's brilliance of execution! It was a pleasure to be so thoroughly engaged by an imagination as rich as the author's, to temporarily occupy a world fully fleshed out with great care and research, as well as emotional complexity and depth. I highly recommend The Quincunx!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found myself becoming thickly involved with all aspects of this novel: the well-drawn characters; the historical richness; the social and moral implications; the harrowing dive into the ugliest of human hearts as well as a fair share of human compassion, forgiveness, and unbreakable will.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have just finished the Quincunx an hour ago, and I am still under the influence of its majestic writing. The story starts really slow like someone already mentioned, but after like 400 pages the story just goes faster never to settle down again. when in the first half you kept on reading by the intruige the writer makes. and in the second half of the book it gets you by the throat and it won't let you rest until you have finished reading. its truly wonderful how Palliser manages to describe all parts of the 19th century society, this book has so many details it is a historical document and it makes you think of the luck we have today. My overall impression is that this book is worth putting some time in because the experience you get in return is to remember for the rest of your life I just want to add that I read the Dutch version so I do believe the translater did jus job very good
sarbow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It starts off slow, but once the main cahracters get into london, the movie gets quite interesting and engaging.
bjbookman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Add a pinch of Trollope's 'Orley Farm' and some Dickens' "Bleak House" and a bit of Collins' 'Armadale" and a big helping of le Fanu's 'the Rose and the Key', you have this novel.
30oddyearsofzan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Quincunx is the first book I've read this year that I haven't been able to finish, although paradoxically I would still recommend it. Palliser's quasi-Victorian potboiler is meticuously researched and technically brilliant, but I found myself unable to warm to it, and its humourless, priggish hero. I managed 931 of the 1200-odd pages, but when I realised I'd worked out the villain about a hundred pages previously - and he was my favourite character - I gave up.Nevertheless, this is absorbing and well worth a read - I may well attempt to complete it in the future.
oddvark59 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Simply the greatest novel written in the second half of the twentieth century. Complex plot, complex characters, and a great Dickensian romp through London and the English countryside.
cabegley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is so plot-driven that I hesitate to give much information, but suffice it to say that young John moves from the remote North countryside to London to try to discover the truth about his origins, slowly uncovering clues about an inheritance that may or may not rightfully belong to him. We travel with John all over London (and underneath it), encountering company both high and low.I was completely absorbed by this book, staying up several nights for hours past my usual bedtime in order to read just a little more. My heart raced for the last hour or so--when's the last time a book did that for me? The plotting is incredibly convoluted (at some point, I wished I had kept notes), but it all ties together beautifully. There is a wealth of period detail--apparently, Palliser spent twelve years researching--all of which weaves seamlessly into the story.Readers may be put off by the length--my hardcover copy is 788 pages of small type--but those who take it on will be amply rewarded. A highly recommended read!
shawnd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Umberto Eco meets Charles Dicken, with a little Anthony Trollope and Ian Caldwell thrown in. Not many British Victorian novels written in 1989 +/- 20 years but here it is. Deep, complex, fairly fast paced but not as accelerated as they've become since it was written. I recommend this. Small type and 700+ pages.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A twisted and suspenseful Dickensian-style monster of a book, intensely absorbing and affecting. Well worth every page.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great blend of history and fiction that you can't put down
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. If you love Dickens, Wilkie Collins, etc., you will love this novel and be sad to see it end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From start to finish this book had me hooked!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
...frustratingly depressing. Read the 6th review posted August 2002 and it sums up exactly how i felt, and expressed far better and more precisely than I could.
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