Stone’s Fall

Iain Pears’s literary gift lies in zipping around history and arranging smackdowns between different paradigms of reality and their incommensurable versions of truth and moral value. That should be enough to make your heart pound, but to ensure it, he jazzes up the contests with murder and mysterious death. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears’s most famous performance, is a truly ingenious tour de force set in 17th-century England — itself a milieu whose like, for untrammeled intellectual, political, and cosmological commotion, we’ll not see again. Now we have Stone’s Fall, another slugfest of ideas with a baffling death at its center, this one embellished by a growing constellation of murders surrounding it.

Pausing briefly in 1953, the story moves backward to 1909 and retreats further, in stages, to 1867. Just on its own, the device is a substitute for character development, each important player making an entrance in a form from which previous incarnations are only gradually unpacked, sometimes most shockingly. And it may be that this is as much human complexity as we can ask from characters whose main job is to service ideas. Be that as it may, let us begin at the beginning, which, of course, is the end: London, 1909. How did military shipbuilder, armament manufacturer, and virtuoso finance capitalist John Stone, Lord Ravenscliff, really meet his death? We know he was killed by falling from a window, but was this an accident, suicide, or foul play? He has made the mystery considerably murkier by having left a will leaving money to an unnamed child whose existence no one previously suspected. Who and where is this person?

Stone’s widow, Lady Ravenscliff (née Countess Elizabeth Hadik-Barkoczy von Futak uns Szala), hires Matthew Braddock, a not particularly savvy newspaper reporter, to come up with an answer. In his investigations, Matthew is forced to ponder the burgeoning array of financial instruments for transforming the concrete into the abstract: “Consols. Debentures. Issues at, below or above par. Yield. Dividend. First preference (or second preference) shares. Bonds, international, domestic, government or commercial.” And so on. This effort soon expands to an exploration of the world as seen through the lens of high finance. Indeed, much of John Stone’s doings described in the novel amount to a riff on this. “The poetry of capital formation” is his art, his theology, and even the very fabric of existence. “The dance of capital, the harmony of a balance sheet, and the way these abstractions interact with people, their characters and desires?. Understand that one is the other, that they are two separate ways of expressing the same thing, and you understand the whole nature of business.”

With the movement of capital setting the frame of reference, morality (as we understand it) is a species of inefficiency. Embracing this worldview, characters apply commercial logic to their own lives — a high-flying courtesan sells shares in herself; a spy sets himself up as an espionage broker, buying and selling international secrets. But, as it happens, nothing suits the dynamic of capital so perfectly as armaments. The demand is potentially limitless. One country’s advance in arms will be met by its enemies’ or rivals’ — an impetus that Stone manipulates brilliantly, his designs greatly aided by rising tensions among Russia, Germany, France, and Britain.

Stone’s business, which began with manufacturing and selling the first torpedoes and grew to encompass dreadnoughts, is integrated from top to bottom and is far flung throughout Europe. It is a triumph of managerial capitalism. According to his shipyard’s general manager, “The job of any company is to make as much profit as possible. As long as that is the main aim of the managers, then there is no need to direct them. They will, collectively, take the right decisions.” There is a problem, however — one that emerged sometime before Stone’s death. The system has been leaking money mysteriously. As one character observes, Stone was confronting “the one thing he feared more than anything. His companies had come alive; he had created a monster, and it was acting in its own interests, no longer taking orders?. And when he tried to stop it, I believe his own invention killed him.” Well, we don’t know quite what that might mean, but we see very soon that those investigating the drain tend to turn up dead.

But there is another problem, more serious and with far greater ramifications for Stone’s peace of mind: It lies in his business’s insalubrious beginnings. To get there we dump Matthew and his sleuthing and move back, first to Paris of 1890 and then even further to Venice of 1867. If there’s something sterile about a financial view of reality, there is something equally sterile — or at least infertile — about the moribund perspective of Venice. It is here, in this dying city, that a competing frame of reference emerges like a miasma. Divided in spirit from the spare, soulless dynamic of managerial capitalism by centuries and by strata of putrefaction, the once-great mercantile city-state fosters inertia, madness, illicit sexual passion, and bitter revenge. These two worlds meet and combine monstrously in the novel in a way I cannot reveal. Like me, you may guess a most frightful truth a couple of hundred pages before the final denouement. Still, you can’t be entirely sure, and your horrified wonder will push you on.

So, yes: fortunately for the hedonistic reader, the novel does not churn along solely on a current of ideas; it also takes off on a number of plot tributaries. There is plenty of financial skullduggery and flimflam, of course, but there is also espionage, international intrigue, and adultery; a bunch of anarchists, a fortune teller, a mesmerist, a madman, nine murders, and one assassination attempt. Hijacking real characters and events along the way — the Panic of 1890, the rescue of Barings, the invention and manufacture of the torpedo and later the dreadnought — Pears has teased open the weave of history to insert his own creation and summon competing ways of understanding its denouement. Does the reason for Stone’s death lie in the sphere of aggressive managerial capitalism, abstract, denaturing and amoral? Or in relicts of a mercantile world, concrete, deliquescent, and unwholesome? Six hundred pages will give you the answer.