AN Instance of the Fingerpost

Overview

In 1663 Oxford, a servant girl confesses to a murder. But four witnesses?a medical student, the son of a traitor, a cryptographer, and an archivist?each finger a different culprit...

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AN Instance of the Fingerpost

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Overview

In 1663 Oxford, a servant girl confesses to a murder. But four witnesses—a medical student, the son of a traitor, a cryptographer, and an archivist—each finger a different culprit...

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425167724
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 752
  • Sales rank: 342,919
  • Product dimensions: 4.40 (w) x 6.92 (h) x 1.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Iain Pears

Iain Pears was born in 1955. Educated at Wadham College, Oxford, he has worked as a journalist, an art historian, and a television consultant in England, France, Italy, and the United States. He is the author of seven highly praised detective novels, a book of art history, and countless articles on artistic, financial, and historical subjects, as well as the international bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost He lives in Oxford, England.

Biography

Before 1990, the only book Oxford art historian Iain Pears had published was a history of the arts in 17th- and 18th-century England. But as a Reuters news correspondent in England, France, Italy, and the United States, he had produced articles on everything from soccer matches to stock market reports.

When Pears decided to combine his writing skills with his background in art history, the result was The Raphael Affair, the first book in a series of neatly crafted, highly original "art history mysteries." Packed with fascinating details about art history and juicy tidbits about the art-buying world, the series revolves around British art historian Jonathan Argyll, with Flavia di Stefano of the Italian National Art Theft Squad as his partner in crime-fighting (and eventually in marriage).

The books were a hit with readers and critics of mysteries—Kirkus Reviews called The Bernini Bust (1993) "the cleverest entry yet in this deliciously literate series." Still, Pears remained relatively unknown in the wider literary world until the 1998 publication of An Instance of the Fingerpost. This weighty philosophical mystery novel was compared to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in its scope and ambition, and like The Name of the Rose, it was an international bestseller.

In it, Pears "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," wrote Richard Bernstein in The New York Times Book Review. Pears's "baroque and ingenious" book (as Andrew Miller called it) relates the murder of an Oxford don from the point of view of four different narrators, only one of them reliable. Along the way, it explores epistemological questions about observation and insight, superstition and science, reason and faith. The 685-page volume sold more than 120,000 copies in hardcover—an impressive figure considering the book's density and subject matter.

The popularity of An Instance of the Fingerpost helped boost sales of Pears' mysteries, and fans of Jonathan Argyll were gratified when Pears brought out another installment in the series, The Immaculate Deception (2000). But readers would have to wait a bit longer for another Pears novel. The Dream of Scipio (2002) was worth the wait. The book weaves together three stories, set in Provence in three different historical crisis points: the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century; the Black Death in the 14th century; and World War II in the mid-20th century. The stories are linked by a manuscript titled The Dream of Scipio (after Cicero's dialogue of the same name), and by thematic concerns with passion, wisdom and power.

Allan Massie, reviewing The Dream of Scipio for The Scotsman, called it "erudite, even demandingly intellectual…If the highest test of a work of imaginative literature is whether it can make you think and feel at the same time, this novel passes it."

Good To Know

Pears mentioned in an interview that he gave a Harry Potter book to a godchild before Harry Potter became widely known. When his favorite books achieve fame, he added, it's "delightful for the authors, and well-deserved…but I always feel ever so slightly betrayed when one of my private joys becomes public property like that."

In another interview, Pears said he had too many favorite painters to list, but included David Hockney, Nicolas Poussin, and James Whistler as "current favorites."

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    1. Hometown:
      Oxford, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      1955
    1. Education:
      Ph.D., Oxford University

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

It's England in the 1660s, Charles II has been restored to the throne following years of civil war and Oliver Cromwell's short-lived republic. Oxford is the intellectual seat of the country, a place of great scientific, religious, and political ferment. A fellow of New College is found dead in suspicious circumstances. A young woman is accused of his murder.

We hear the story of the death from four witnesses—each tells his own version of what happened. Only one reveals the extraordinary truth. An Instance of The Fingerpost is an utterly compelling historical mystery with a plot that twists and turns and keeps the reader guessing until the very last page.

ABOUT IAIN PEARS

Born in 1955, Iain Pears has worked as an art historian, a television consultant, and a journalist, in England, France, Italy, and the United States. He is the author of six highly praised detective novels, a book of art history, and countless articles on artistic, financial, and historical subjects. He lives in Oxford, England.

Praise

"Ingenious." —Philadelphia Inquirer

"Enthralling." —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"May well be the best 'historical mystery' ever written." —Boston Sunday Globe

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • The four narrators of An Instance of The Fingerpost illustrate that there is never just one side to a story, that an event can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. As readers, however, we're conditioned to trust our narrator. Did you find one narrator inherently more trustworthy than another? What qualities suggest a credible narrator, and how does Iain Pears play off of our assumptions in his characterizations of Marco da Cola, Jack Prestcott, John Wallis, and Anthony Wood? Can you think of other books in which this multi-perspective technique was used to similar ends, or other books that feature unreliable narrators?
     
  • An Instance of The Fingerpost is set in the early years of the Restoration, a time in English history marked by political intrigue and social unrest. The Civil War has just ended. Oliver Cromwell, rebel and "lord protector" of England, is dead, and the monarchy of Charles II has been restored to power. Although the eleven years of Crowmwell's Commonwealth are not described in great detail, they are evoked—in very different ways - by a number of characters (Wallis, Prestcott, Sarah Blundy and John Thurloe among them). What might we infer about Cromwellian England from the character—and memories—of his supporters and detractors? Is it safe to assume it was any easier for those citizens (like Sarah Blundy) who, during the Restoration, have been forced to the fringes of society?
     
  • The Oxford University of the novel is steeped in its own plots, schemes, and rivalries (think of the competition between Marco da Cola and Richard Lower, and Lower's alliances with Robert Boyle, as well as the university fellows' various reactions to the murder of Robert Grove). How does Pears use Oxford as a microcosmic reflection of the larger, more tumultuous society?
     
  • The period in which the novel takes place is one wherein religion permeated every facet of society, from academia to the sciences, from art to philosophy. Richard Lower's medical experiments seem primitive now, but in the context of this novel, they offer us both a fascinating glimpse of the development of medical procedures, as well as a portrait of how religion, and one's religious beliefs, informed and affected scientific research and experimentation. Cite examples from the text of how religion shaped—for better or worse—commonly held medical, scientific, and philosophical "truths."
     
  • Restoration England was a sharply demarcated world—there were those who clearly belonged (Royalists and Protestants) and those who clearly did not (Roundheads, Freemasons, Quakers, and Papists.) Even Oxford University, during a veritable golden age of scientific discovery and academic advancement, is depicted in the novel as a dangerous place for free-thinkers and outsiders. What social or political conditions made such rigid definitions of "the outsider" necessary? Similarly, what constituted "radical beliefs"?
     
  • Nowadays, we often tend to conceive of prejudice in ethnic or racial terms, but in the world of Fingerpost, one's trustworthiness and social worth is decided by family history. Sarah Blundy, for example, is far more a social pariah than, say, John Wallis, whom Pears has portrayed as a homosexual, or, for that matter, Marco da Cola, who's not only not English, but Catholic as well. Consider the family histories of some of the characters in this novel, and how the actions of their fathers has determined their station in Restoration society. How do the characters in this novel decide if their peers are trustworthy or not? By what criteria do people judge one another?
     
  • The events of An Instance of The Fingerpost are set in motion by the death of an Oxford don and the subsequent trial of Sarah Blundy, the woman accused of his murder. Anthony Wood, a witness to these events, is reconciled to the verdict calling for her execution in the belief that the divine plan will be fulfilled. Considering the fate of Sarah Blundy, what do you think Pears is saying about the construct of social justice versus divine justice? Compare our contemporary assumptions about guilt and innocence against those of the 17th century. Consider other criminal trials of that era, either historical or fictional accounts. For example, during that same period, the Salem witch trials were underway in America. What do these events suggest about how a society defines and administers justice?
     
  • A historical novel starts from fact, but its creator must mesh fiction with facts to create a compelling narrative. If you consult the Dramatis Personae at the end of the book, you'll discover that many of Fingerpost's characters (such as John Wallis, Anthony Wood, Robert Boyle, and Richard Lower) are actual historical figures, while others (such as Marco da Cola, Jack Prestcott, and Sarah Blundy) are fictionalized. Were you able to determine which characters were fictional creations? What kind of responsibility, if any, do historical novelists have in their portrayal of actual historical events? Compare Pears's technique to those of other contemporary historical novelists (e.g. Umberto Eco, E.L. Doctorow, Caleb Carr).
     
  • There is a wonderful scene in the novel's first section where Marco da Cola attends (and loathes) a production of King Lear by William Shakespeare. King Lear tells the story of a once-powerful monarch humiliated and unraveled by his own weakness and the treachery of his children. Why, then, might Pears have chosen to include Lear in his novel in particular? Do you see any parallels between the world invoked in King Lear (which was written in 1606) and the world of Fingerpost? How might this play have particular significance in Restoration England, particularly in Oxford, which was a Royalist stronghold? (Remember that not everyone shares da Cola's reaction; indeed, Richard Lower reacts to the play very differently.) What, then, does the each character's reaction to the play say about their politics?
     
  • Francis Bacon's opus Novum Organum Scientarum is a defining philosophical work that takes as one of its themes the fallacies that often beset logical thinking. Pears uses this as the intellectual framework for his novel, and has adopted three of Bacon's tenets as epigraphs for his narrators' stories: The Idols of the Market (which refers to a misuse of language); The Idols of the Cavern (which refers to personal obsessions); and The Idols of the Theater (which refers to the danger of false reasoning). (Bacon's fourth tenet, The Idols of the Tribe, refers to fallacies common to humankind.) Consider which epigraph Pears uses for each of his narrator's stories; how are they meant to be "signposts" for the reader? What relation do the part titles ("A Question of Precedence," "The Great Trust," "The Character of Compliance") have to their respective narratives? The testimony related in the final section shares its title with that of the novel. "An Instance of The Fingerpost" is the moment that marks the discovery of an inviolable truth in the cause of an investigation. Do you think that the final witness's testimony is wholly reliable or does he also succumb to instances of impaired logic, as defined by Bacon's idols, en route to the truth?
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 27 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2012

    This is one of my favorite books I have ever read, discovered by

    This is one of my favorite books I have ever read, discovered by accident and bought without ever reading a review. As a scientist with a passion for scientific history, I found the historical detail to be spot-on. Pears' excellence in character development is shown to perfection in the use of shared narrative. While the story is a mystery, the mystery is incidental to what is in reality an excellent study of history, philosophy, politics, culture, and the ever fascinating conflict of science and religion, which is no better defined now than it was in the 17th century. I have heard this book compared to Eco's The Name of the Rose, but Pears is able to impart philosophy subtly without distracting from the plot with lectures. From a literary standpoint, I love that no one character is admirable or that no one character tells the entire story, due to their own prejudices and agendas, but rather that the reader puts the story together be reading between the lines. The author's ability to manipulate the reader's perception of is exceptional; the opening sentence of the second narrative is amongst the most impactful statements in modern writing and sets the tone for the rest of the book. Despite its I read the entire book in two days and was sad to put it down when it was finished.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Brilliant Book

    This book could be read for either its political content or as a mystery or both! I refused to stop reading this book and it was exciting as well as challenging. I absolutely love the author's style of writing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2002

    Okay ... but not as great as the reviews make you think.

    Yes this book is very original and Yes it is intricate and Yes the historical detail is amazingly. Buuuuut, I can't say it is a page-turner. You want to get to the end and see how it all pays out and, as the narratives continue, you realize they are not all what they seem. The result is that you are pulled further into the story. however, it just isn't as engaging as I'd hoped from the reviews. a very good book, but it could have been edited down to a tighter story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 7, 2009

    Not Really for Mystery Fans

    Oh, where do I start? While I really love books about history, this book made me tired. There was way too much history and not enough plot. By the time I got to the second and third sections I forgot some of the characters(there were so many) and I had to keep going back to see who they were. I've read books that have been this long and longer, but instead of 725 pages, this book could have been done in 350, no more than 400. For all of the build up, I expected a much more exciting ending. I do not recommend this book to mystery fans, maybe to historians.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2004

    Ingenious!

    Having read Pears's Jonathan Argyll mysteries, I expected to be entertained by this book. I was delighted to find that it far surpassed the Argyll books in character and plot development, sophistication, and originality. Shifting points of view are not just a fun pot device but really give fullness to plot and character. Really a fun read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2003

    Amazing

    This book is every bit as good as the hype. Truly stunning.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2003

    'The' book for lovers of mysteries and histories

    Ok, I am not that well read, but the only other historical mystery I can think of in the same league is Eco's 'The Name of the Rose'. They are both excellent. You can read more detail in other reviews, it is not necessary for me to repeat. The other piece of advice I can offer is to get one of those book light things so that if you share a bedroom with someone you will not keep them up all night.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2002

    Restoration of the Historical Whodunnit.

    With Cromwell dead and the monarchy restored England is in an uneasy period and even the hallowed cloisters of Oxford provide no refuge. Against this backdrop Pears has woven a wonderful story of darkness and shadows. A must for anyone who likes good literature mixed with an exciting plot.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 1999

    An intelligent, complex tale

    Length of book looks daunting, but don't be discouraged. It's a compelling mystery very intelligently written. Four characters relate the events surrounding a murder. Each has his own perspective, knowledge, and motive. Several prominent figures from history, John Locke and Robert Boyle among them, are written in as participants to the action. Very clever.

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