Obituary: Michael Cox

Editor, musician and author spurred on to produce his first novel after he was diagnosed with cancer

As compiler of the Oxford Chronology of Literature, Michael Cox, who has died aged 60 of cancer, knew well the shape of literary lives. In his own case, that life was defined by the publication of a novel called The Meaning of Night in 2006, in the wake of a hotly contested auction and circumstances of production that none of his peers could have envied. But Cox actually had many lives. He was a rock'n'roll musician long before he was an editor or novelist.

Born in Northamptonshire, he was educated at Wellingborough grammar school and St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he studied English literature. His musical career began at university. He made two albums for EMI under the pseudonym Matthew Ellis and another as Obie Clayton. His compositions are sometimes mistakenly attributed to Matthew Fisher of Procol Harum, because of some similarities of sound and a shared record label.

As Cox himself put it: "I think the two albums I made as Matthew Ellis were a mixture between Elton John and Procol Harum. I was studying at Cambridge in 1969-70 and someone was making a film there, a real 'arty' black-and-white film, like a silent movie. I wrote some music for that and got a little band together to perform it. We played live as the film was being shown. There was a record producer in the audience called Jerry Dane, and he asked if I wanted to sign for a deal. So that was how I got to make the first Matthew Ellis LP. After that I played a few gigs on my own. But I didn't really like that, so I got a band together instead. That was more or less the group that later played on the Obie Clayton records."

Before splitting, the Obie Clayton band recorded another album that never came out and some singles and, as Cox told a Procol Harum biographer in 1999, "there's tons of old stuff lying around on tapes; it's just that I'm now in my fifties and I don't know where to go with these things". Cox's days as a cool cat were by then a long time gone, but he continued to write music.

In 1977, experimenting with a squarer world, Cox had taken a job in publishing at Thorsons, and begun writing and editing books. His biography of the ghost-story writer MR James was published to acclaim by Oxford University Press in 1983. This was followed by a number of Oxford anthologies of short fiction, beginning with The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986), co-edited with RA Gilbert, which reflected his long-held fascination with Victorian and Edwardian genre fiction.

In 1989, Cox himself joined OUP, where he became senior commissioning editor of reference books. He compiled the invaluable Dictionary of Writers and Their Works (1991), and in 2002 completed the massive Oxford Chronology of English Literature. This remains a major scholarly resource, covering 4,000 authors and 30,000 titles.

For many years Cox lived with his wife Dizzy (nee Crockett) in Northamptonshire; they had got married in 1973 after he spotted her across a room at a party and fell in love. He might easily, come the 1990s, have settled for such success and happiness as he already had; but he had always had an itch to write a novel set in the Victorian demi-monde.

For over three decades, in fact, he had worked on this book in his head, developing the plot and the characters and occasionally beginning and then deleting drafts. He recalled: "Bringing up a family and paying a mortgage intervened. If I hadn't developed cancer, it's likely that I would never have written my book."

In 1992, he began to notice a strange whistling sensation when he breathed. At first it was a family joke, but then he started waking up in the night "thinking I had dreamt I couldn't breathe until I realised, with horror, that I wasn't dreaming at all".

His left nasal cavity was found to be almost entirely filled with an unusual type of tumour. "When they poked it, it began to bleed uncontrollably. I almost bled to death on the operating table."

Despite its size and rareness, that tumour was successfully removed. But at a five-year follow-up scan, another tumour was found, this time on the pituitary gland. It would eventually affect his eyesight, but also lead to a sudden illumination of his creative vision.

In 2004, he was put on steroids to reduce inflammation on the optic nerve. The medicines contained a surprising gift: "They gave me a burst of mental, physical and creative energy. I was buzzing with ideas, hyperactive and unable to sleep." Suddenly, the long-deliberated book began to flow. Of course, it was only partly the drugs: there was also the knowledge that he could go blind and be prevented from reading and writing and - soon enough, though not as soon as he first thought - die.

In eight weeks, he wrote about 30,000 words of The Meaning Of Night. It would become a vast Victorian-era murder mystery concerned with restitution of a family fortune and title. Once completed it caught the attention of a leading literary agent, Natasha Fairweather, who, after conducting an auction, sold it to a British publisher in January 2005 for £430,000 - a record for a first novel. Other offers came from round the world, and the book was shortlisted for the 2006 Costa First Novel Award.

The dream-like success of The Meaning of Night - which was followed by a sequel, The Glass of Time, in 2008 - was a boon; but it could not entirely allay the pain and discomfort of the surgery and radiotherapy that ensued when more tumours began to appear, and Cox's sight declined further. He is survived by Dizzy, a daughter and two stepchildren and, it is rumoured, a manuscript, or portion thereof.

• Michael Andrew Cox, editor, novelist and musician, born 23 October 1948; died 31 March 2009


Giles Foden

The GuardianTramp

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