Set largely in Oxford, the main fascination and brilliance of the novel is its supremely confident structure and plot. The book is actually a single story told four times, by four different narrators. Each of them has their own reasons for not telling the truth: they have a desire to obscure or hide from their actions; their perception is coloured by religious or political preconceptions; or they are — quite simply — mad. Described in this way, the novel sounds quite dispiriting, but Pears is deft at teasing and enchanting the reader.
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Like Eco's story of nefarious doings at a 14th-century Italian monastery, Pears' novel is a compendious historical pageant set among 17th-century clergymen, scholars and politicians concerned with the natural and the supernatural in roughly equal measure. A murder is at the center of the story, or, more accurately, the several stories of Pears' massive but unflagging book.
Four rather long excursions into the same basic tale could grow wearisome, but Pears' effort never does. The author, a British journalist and the author of six previous detective stories, brilliantly exploits the stormy, conspiracy-heavy history of England after the death of Oliver Cromwell to fashion a believable portrait of 17th-century political and intellectual life as well as a whodunit of almost mesmerizing complexity.
Most of Pears' dozen or so main characters are imagined versions of historical figures. These range from the obese and greedy Earl of Clarendon, prime minister to the restored monarch, Charles II, to the Oxford apothecary who was landlord to the chemist Robert Boyle.
Pears then throws in a few entirely fictitious people, including two of his four narrators. But whether entirely or only partly imagined, all of the members of this large and unruly cast are finely individualized, craggily differentiated characters, almost biblical in their moral and intellectual variety.
The story begins with one Marco de Cola, self-described "gentleman of Venice," who is writing an account of a visit he made to England not long after Cromwell's death for the purpose, he says, of recovering property stolen from his father's merchant trading network. Cola is a kind of dilettante physician who soon finds himself in Oxford keeping company with the likes of Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, and Richard Lower, a pioneering doctor who made early experiments in blood transfusion.
Again, is that true? Although the tendency to breathe more often when we exercise indicates this, the converse is not true, for I placed a rat in a bucket of ice and stopped its nose, but it died nonetheless.
Cola is the first to describe the novel's main event, the death, apparently by poisoning, of an Oxford theologian who had plenty of enemies.
He also introduces Pears' readers to the other significant characters. We meet the troubled and beautiful Sarah Blundy, a fictitious character but, Pears tells us in a helpful end note, one modeled on a historical figure named Anne Green who was hanged in Oxford in There is John Wallis, a professor of geometry who deciphered codes for both sides during England's civil war.
Jack Prestcott is a young man of violent passions striving to vindicate the memory of his father, supposedly a traitor to the royalist cause. The principal element that eventually binds all these figures together is a political intrigue of confounding subterfuge and double-dealing. Indeed, a warning is in order: Never assume that anything said in this book, however factual it may appear at the time, will not be demonstrated to be false.
If Eco's book was a sly demonstration of semiotics, the study of signs, Pear's is an exercise in theories of knowledge. Theological disputation, cryptography, religious dissent, medical experiments, moral philosophy, even the Turkish-Venetian war over Crete are all dealt with in what sometimes seems an entertaining encyclopedia of the second half of the 17th century. Underlying it all are competing notions of the truth, with citations from Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific revolution, providing signposts to Pears' intrigue.
For without certainty what is science except glorified guesswork? And without the conviction of certainty, total and absolute, how can we ever hang anyone with an easy conscience?
The moral component of Bacon's admonition is the heart of Pears' novel for the simple reason that a murder has been committed and a suspect is indeed to be hanged for it. As he presents his four versions of the story, Pears is not above salting his tale with fraudulent clues, intentionally leading the reader into the very kind of false certainty that Bacon warned against. In one important instance, however, involving what would appear to be a damning confession, Pears fails to come up with a persuasive explanation, and that stands as a rare logical flaw in a story that is otherwise a marvel of syllogistic precision.
There is one way, Bacon said, in which scientists and lawyers can avoid the duplicity of appearances, and "An Instance of the Fingerpost" does show that way, but only after first showing far more instances of honest error and intentional falsehood.
When the denouement comes, it is with a new and final twist, one whose quality of surprise is the final proof of this talented author's almost infinite capacity to replace one understanding of things with another. Return to the Books Home Page. Riverhead Books.
An Instance of the Fingerpost Reader’s Guide
Nothing in Pears's five archly amusing art mysteries Giotto's Hand, p. Opinionated, influential Dr. Robert Grove is poisoned with arsenic in his New College lodgings. A missing signet ring leads his colleagues to his former servant and rumored strumpet Sarah Blundy, who, swiftly brought to trial, confesses and is promptly hanged—and dissected by enthusiastic physician Richard Lower. But the crime, evidently so simple in its events, is presented through the distorting lenses of four narrators whose obsessions place it in dramatically different contexts. Visiting Venetian Marco da Cola, a dandy trained in medicine, who has been treating Sarah's ailing mother Anne, grieves for the ruin of mother and daughter and the wreck of his own friendship with Lower. Sarah's former lover Jack Prestcott, an undergraduate jailed for attacking his guardian, is consumed with proving that his exiled father was hounded to his death innocent of the charge of treason the returning monarch Charles II's supporters had lodged against him.
Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost
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An Instance of the Fingerpost
An Instance of the Fingerpost is a historical mystery novel by Iain Pears. A murder in 17th-century Oxford is related from the contradictory points of view of four of the characters, all of them unreliable narrators. The setting of the novel is , just after the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War , when the authority of King Charles II is not yet settled, and conspiracies abound. Most of the characters are historical figures. Two of the narrators are the mathematician John Wallis and the historian Anthony Wood. Furthermore, the characters that are fictional are nonetheless drawn from real events.
AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST
Like Eco's story of nefarious doings at a 14th-century Italian monastery, Pears' novel is a compendious historical pageant set among 17th-century clergymen, scholars and politicians concerned with the natural and the supernatural in roughly equal measure. A murder is at the center of the story, or, more accurately, the several stories of Pears' massive but unflagging book. Four rather long excursions into the same basic tale could grow wearisome, but Pears' effort never does. The author, a British journalist and the author of six previous detective stories, brilliantly exploits the stormy, conspiracy-heavy history of England after the death of Oliver Cromwell to fashion a believable portrait of 17th-century political and intellectual life as well as a whodunit of almost mesmerizing complexity. Most of Pears' dozen or so main characters are imagined versions of historical figures. These range from the obese and greedy Earl of Clarendon, prime minister to the restored monarch, Charles II, to the Oxford apothecary who was landlord to the chemist Robert Boyle.