Originally published in 1903, The Nubuly Coat is a rare book—yet it influenced the novels of so many other writers of Gothic fiction. The story opens when a young architect named Westray comes to the village of Cullerne to oversee the restoration of the old Norman church. The town itself is populated by an interesting array of characters: Mr. Sharnall the organist, who believes that a hidden specter with a hammer is out to kill him; the Rector and his wife, who seem as though they stepped out of an episode of Keeping Up Appearances.
There are also Miss Joliffe, the landlady; and her teenage niece, Anastasia, who seems surprisingly mature for her age. We’re also introduced to, although not at firsthand, Martin Joliffe, who for many years before his death believed that he was the rightful heir of the Blandamer family fortune. There’s also Lord Blandamer, the mysteries local squire, who keeps his distance from the rest of the town, though his family insignia, the “nebuly coat” of the title, covers everything in Cullerne. The townspeople are both in awe and contemptuous of him.
It’s hard to characterize this novel. Mystery? Thriller? There’s a murder here, but the mystery never gets solved. But there’s definitely a suggestion of a solution. I was a little disappointed in that, but the atmosphere of the tale was sufficiently chilling enough that I really got into it. It’s not an “easy” read, and it took about 20 pages for the story to get going, but Gothic fiction is really my thing. It’s easy to see why this novel influenced writers such as Dorothy Sayers and her The Nine Tailors.
There’s a lot here about church music and church politics, but it doesn’t burden the story. Falkner’s strength was characterization; he’s a master of using even the finest of brushstrokes to depict his characters, and he’s at his best when describing people at their best… and worst. He’s also very, very funny in places. This novel’s been on my TBR list for a long time, and it puzzles me as to why this book isn’t more widely available; it’s a classic.