In the Victorian manner

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Sims' most recent books are "Apollo's Fire" and the forthcoming "Gaslight Crime" from Penguin Books.

“I shall tell you about it, but not at present,” a character says to the narrator of Michael Cox’s new Victorian thriller, “The Glass of Time.” She is declaring Cox’s motto as a storyteller. He has absorbed into his bones the dictum usually attributed to Wilkie Collins, the Victorian novelist who seems to be his primary model: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

Cox takes this rule and runs with it, creating a story that is somehow both leisurely and gripping. Readers will surely fall under Cox’s spell and settle down to wait for resolutions to the mysteries that unfold. But it will definitely require waiting. For most of these 500-plus pages, the narrator doesn’t even realize quite as much as the reader does about what is going on around her. After a brief, coy preface by someone describing the source of this text -- a foolscap manuscript at Harvard -- Cox leaps into the voice of his young female narrator: “I wish you, first of all, to imagine that you are standing beside me.”

Well known in mystery and crime fields before becoming a novelist, Michael Cox wrote a biography of M.R. James, the great British ghost story writer, and edited collections of detective, ghost and spy stories for Oxford University Press. His own life seems to have had no shortage of drama. Cox began his career as a musician and songwriter, recording albums in the 1970s. After making notes for three decades toward a detective novel set in Victorian London, he was diagnosed with cancer that might have resulted in blindness. He decided to race against fate to complete it, and the result was “The Meaning of Night,” an international bestseller published last year. Apparently Cox kept his pen racing across the page -- it’s difficult to imagine this tale emerging from a computer -- because he’s back already with a new book.


Edward Glyver, the narrator of “The Meaning of Night,” was a brutal murderer. With his second book, Cox has stayed with a first-person narrator -- a point of view that provides useful limitations for a thriller writer. But he has broadened the range of his ventriloquism. This time around, we navigate these dark waters through the attentive eyes of Esperanza Gorst, a 19-year-old who, at the behest of her guardian, has wormed her way into a “Bleak House”-sort of palace in the guise of a lady’s maid. She has entered the employ of the mysterious Lady Tansor and soon encounters her two very different sons, Randolph and Perseus. Not surprisingly, they, like almost every other person in this book, are hiding secrets. The parade of twists and revelations provide a satisfying, old-fashioned reading experience.

It is typical of Cox’s chutzpah that Esperanza doesn’t know herself why she has been asked to infiltrate this home and divine its secrets. She is driven by her complete faith in her guardian, Madame de l’Orme, and by her desire to please her. Esperanza is given the perfect instructions for the narrator of such a story: Keep your eyes open and take notes about anything that strikes you as odd. “I was an actress now,” she writes, “as I had dreamed of being as a child, with an actress’ power to convince my audience that I was someone I was not.” Fortunately, as she remarks elsewhere, she is “an avid collector of facts.”

Although Cox plots his books very carefully and is in full control of his story at every moment, it is his sense of historical texture that pleases as much as anything else. In her role as lady’s maid, Esperanza sponges shoes with milk to clean them; she brushes velvet dresses and empties slop jars. Cox also has fun bringing in his favorite Victorian fiction for cameos, although without a postmodern wink at the reader. Esperanza curls up with Miss Braddon’s latest novel, and we even find her reading, yes, Wilkie Collins. “Novels are my passion,” sighs Esperanza to her diary.

Like his first novel, the new one turns on intricate questions of deceit, inheritance and the long shadows cast by old sins. At his worst, Cox contorts and winks like a stripper to keep from revealing too much too soon. At his best, which is most of the time, he draws you in slowly until you feel hypnotized by the atmosphere and confusion.

Cox is not only willing to make the reader wait; he insists upon it. Unquestionably he can be a bit too leisurely at times, dawdling to admire the scenery, even unnecessarily repeating points. Most of the time, however, Cox tells a lively and convincing tale worthy of his distinguished Victorian models.