AN Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel

Overview


A national bestseller and one of the New York Public Library's Books to Remember, An Instance of the Fingerpost is a thrilling historical mystery from Iain Pears.

"It is 1663, and England is wracked with intrigue and civil strife. When an Oxford don is murdered, it seems at first that the incident can have nothing to do with great matters of church and state....Yet, little is as it seems in this gripping novel, which dramatizes the ways in which witnesses can see the same events yet remember them falsely. ...

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AN Instance of the Fingerpost

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Overview


A national bestseller and one of the New York Public Library's Books to Remember, An Instance of the Fingerpost is a thrilling historical mystery from Iain Pears.

"It is 1663, and England is wracked with intrigue and civil strife. When an Oxford don is murdered, it seems at first that the incident can have nothing to do with great matters of church and state....Yet, little is as it seems in this gripping novel, which dramatizes the ways in which witnesses can see the same events yet remember them falsely. Each of four narrators—a Venetian medical student, a young man intent on proving his late father innocent of treason, a cryptographer, and an archivist—fingers a different culprit...an erudite and entertaining tour de force." —People

Iain Pears's The Dream of Scipio and The Portrait are also available from Riverhead Books.

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Editorial Reviews

Daniel Reitz
Riverhead is marketing the hell out of historian Iain Pears' first novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, and the media seems turned on by the hype -- you'd almost believe this was "the literary thriller of the year." Don't be surprised if midway through this sprawling and seemingly endless tome, however, you feel like suing the publishers (and certain critics) for fraud. If this book is a thriller, then I'm Edgar Allan Poe.

For Pears and certain other moderately talented writers, history provides a sturdy hook to hang a shabby coat upon. It gives a sense of legitimacy -- even intellectual clout -- to writers such as Caleb Carr, whose novels are trotted out with Umberto Eco-ish pretensions. (In Carr's case, it's the jacket designer and the marketers who are the real artists, gulling readers into thinking it must be literature because Theodore Roosevelt figures as a character, there's an Alfred Stieglitz photograph on the cover and it's over 400 pages long.) Pears, as it happens, is no Caleb Carr. He's much more boring than that.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is a Rashomon-like tale that deconstructs a murder in 1660s Oxford and the trial that leads a young woman to be hanged for a crime she didn't commit. (Or did she?) Every section is narrated by a different character -- although each tends to sound much the same as those that came before -- and each narrator reevaluates the version of events you've just read, giving his spin on what is true, each assuring you that he alone is telling you the truth. The problem is that you're getting multiple versions of a story that Pears hasn't convinced you to care about in the first place. The narrators are a motley collection of pompous gasbags, and Pears' approach is to present each rambling section as if we've just stumbled on some actual 16th century historical documents -- every word is supposedly both fascinating and important.

Pears may be a better writer than Carr, but he's sanctimonious where Carr tends to be overly manipulative. The point of his novel seems best summed up when one of the ponderous speakers tells us, "We are all capable of the most monstrous evil when convinced we are right, and it was an age when the madness of conviction held all tightly in its grasp." This is a noble sentiment, to be sure, but after a century of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, it's not particularly revelatory. And when a book is as long as this one (691 pages) and the "thriller" hook is this uncompelling, you might find yourself losing patience faster than you can say The Name of the Rose. -- Salon

Andrew Miller
A near-perfect example of the genre. -- The New York Times Book Review
First Things Magazine
A historical mystery novel of very considerable philosophical, even theological, interest.... A first rate instance of this genre.
New Yorker
Richly imagined.
People Magazine
Gripping...an entertaining tour de force.
Newsweek
A whopping good read.
Newsweek
Brings not merely a huge cast of characters but a whole century vividly to life.
People
It is 1663, and England is wracked with intrigue and civil strife. When an Oxford don is murdered, it seems at first that the incident can have nothing to do with great matters of church and state....Yet, little is as it seems in this gripping novel, which dramatizes the ways in which witnesses can see the same events yet remember them falsely. Each of four narrators-a Venetian medical student, a young man intent on proving his late father innocent of treason, a cryptographer, and an archivist-fingers a different culprit...an erudite and entertaining tour de force.People
New York Times Book Review
Successful literary thrillers in the mold of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose are the stuff of a publisher's dreams, and in Pears' novel they may have found a near-perfect example of the genre...Pears, with a painstaking, almost forensic attention to detail, constructs his world like a master painter...
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Ingenious.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Enthralling.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Fascinating...quite extraordinary...elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art.
Sunday Boston Globe
Now in trade, the New York Times bestseller that "may well be the best 'historical mystery' ever written.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This massive, delightfully titled literary thriller (it's a quote from Sir Francis Bacon) is the kind of gamble it's great to see a publisher taking in these often timid times. The English author, responsible so far for a series of conventional mysteries, has gone back to 17th-century Oxford for an absorbing, macabre tale of murder, politics, faith and betrayal. Featured in more than incidental roles are such real-life characters as John Locke, Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, King Charles II and the Earl of Clarendon. The murder by poisoning of Robert Grove, a Fellow of New College, and the subsequent trial and execution for the crime of Sarah Blundy, daughter of a freethinking early Socialist and anti-Royalist, is the heart of the action, which is related in four separate first-person accounts, each the length of a short novel. There is Marco da Cola, a good-hearted Venetian visitor whose irritable reflections on the English are witty and betray a perfect period ear; Jack Prestcott, a fiery young lawyer devoted to proving that his father, disgraced as a traitor, was himself betrayed; John Wallis, priest, mathematician and cryptographer of genius (also a real character), whose coldly cynical schemes set off a series of dazzlingly complex political maneuvers; and bookish scholar Anthony Wood, a background figure to the rest, but whose consuming love for Sarah makes him ultimately the central actor in the drama. Pears' grasp of the thought of the time, with its scientific zeal curbed always by what seems now like excess religiosity, its ferocious plotting and counterplotting, its struggles for power and position, is sure. Though there are many digressions, most are fascinating, and the book boasts an overall narrative momentum that carries even an ill-informed contemporary reader along.
Library Journal
England of the 1660s was full of political and intellectual turmoil, speculation, and experimentation, not to mention a cast of colorful and controversial characters. It is firmly within this maelstrom that Pears (The Last Judgment) has set this massive historical whodunit. A fellow of New College, Oxford, is found dead of arsenic poisoning (from a fancy carafe of brandy), and a young woman of the evening is accused, sentenced, and hanged for his murder. Case seemingly closed. But no, four very different versions of what really happened to the late Professor Grange related by four eyewitnesses to the crime weave a convoluted fabric of religious, scientific, and political intrigue. Basing his novel loosely upon an actual case from the period, Pears pits the key minds of the day -- Boyle, Locke, Wren and others against one another as each takes a shot at gaining from the event. Strange bedfellows indeed. Followers of Brother Cadfael and the works of Anne Perry and Umberto Eco will revel in this smartly paced, rather tongue-in-cheek tour de force. -- Susan Gene Clifford, Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, California
Library Journal
England of the 1660s was full of political and intellectual turmoil, speculation, and experimentation, not to mention a cast of colorful and controversial characters. It is firmly within this maelstrom that Pears (The Last Judgment) has set this massive historical whodunit. A fellow of New College, Oxford, is found dead of arsenic poisoning (from a fancy carafe of brandy), and a young woman of the evening is accused, sentenced, and hanged for his murder. Case seemingly closed. But no, four very different versions of what really happened to the late Professor Grange related by four eyewitnesses to the crime weave a convoluted fabric of religious, scientific, and political intrigue. Basing his novel loosely upon an actual case from the period, Pears pits the key minds of the day -- Boyle, Locke, Wren and others against one another as each takes a shot at gaining from the event. Strange bedfellows indeed. Followers of Brother Cadfael and the works of Anne Perry and Umberto Eco will revel in this smartly paced, rather tongue-in-cheek tour de force. -- Susan Gene Clifford, Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, California
The New Yorker
Richly imagined.
Boston Globe
May well be the best 'historical mystery' ever written.
Washington Post Book World
Utterly mesmerizing....Don't miss it.
LA Times Book Review
Fascinating...elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573227957
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 704
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.01 (h) x 1.51 (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

Read an Excerpt

A Question of Precedence

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally, I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, wrongly, amongst my friends. I do not intend to pen a lengthy self-justification, or tell in detail how I was deceived and cheated out of renown which should rightfully be mine. My recital, I believe, will speak for itself.

I will leave out much, but nothing of significance. Much of my tour around that country was of interest only to myself, and finds no mention here. Many of those I met, similarly, were of little consequence. Those who in later years did me harm I describe as I knew them then, and I beg any reader to remember that, although I was hardly callow, I was not yet wise in the ways of the world. If my narrative appears simple and foolish, then you must conclude that the young man of so many years past was similarly so. I do not go back to my portrait to add extra layers of tint and varnish to cover my errors or the weakness of my draftsmanship. I will make no accusations, and indulge in no polemic against others; rather, I will say what happened, confident that I need do no more.

My father, Giovanni da Cola, was a merchant, and for the last years of his life was occupied in the importation of luxury goods into England which, though an unsophisticated country, was nonetheless beginning to rouse itself from the effects of revolution. He had shrewdly recognized from afar that the return of King Charles II meant that vast profits would once again be there for the taking and, stealing a march on more timid traders, he established himself in London to provide the wealthier English with those luxuries which the Puritan zealots had discouraged for so many years. His business prospered: he had a good man in London in Giovanni di Pietro, and also entered into a partnership with an English trader, with whom he split his profit. As he once told me, it was a fair bargain: this John Manston was sly and dishonest, but possessed unrivaled knowledge of English tastes. More importantly, the English had passed a law to stop goods coming into their ports in foreign boats, and Manston was a way through this difficulty. As long as my father had di Pietro in place to keep an eye firmly on the accounts, he believed there was little chance of being cheated.

He was long past the time when he took a direct interest in his business, having already converted a portion of his capital into land on Terra Firma to prepare for admission to the Golden Book. Although a merchant himself, he intended his children to be gentlemen, and discouraged me from active participation in his business. I mention this as an indication of his goodness: he had noticed early on that I had little mind for trade, and encouraged me to turn my face against the life he led. He also knew that my sister's new husband was more fitted for ventures than I.

So, while my father secured the family name and fortune, I--my mother being dead and one sister usefully married--was in Padua to acquire the smatterings of polite knowledge; he was content to have his son a member of our nobility but did not wish to have me as ignorant as they. At this point and of mature years--I was now rising thirty--I was suddenly struck by a burning enthusiasm to become a citizen of the Republic of Learning, as it is called. This sudden passion I can no longer recall, so completely has it left me, but then the fascination of the new experimental philosophy held me under its spell. It was, of course, a matter of the spirit rather than of practical application. I say with Beroaldus, non sum medicus, nec medicinae prorsus expers, in the theory of physick I have taken some pains, not with an intent to practice, but to satisfy myself. I had neither desire nor need to gain a living in such a fashion, although occasionally, I confess with shame, I taunted my poor good father by saying that unless he was kind to me, I would take my revenge by becoming a physician.

I imagine that he knew all along I would do no such thing, and that in reality I was merely captivated by ideas and people which were as exciting as they were dangerous. As a result, he raised no objections when I wrote to him about the reports of one professor who, though nominally charged with lecturing in rhetoric, spent much of his time enlarging upon the latest developments in natural philosophy. This man had traveled widely and maintained that, for all serious students of natural phenomena, the Low Countries and England were no longer to be disdained. After many months in his care, I caught his enthusiasm and, having little to detain me in Padua, requested permission to tour that part of the world. Kind man that he was, my father immediately gave his assent, procured permission for me to leave Venetian territory, and sent a bill of credit to his bankers in Flanders for my use.

I had thought of taking advantage of my position to go by sea, but decided that, if I was to acquire knowledge, then it would be best to see as much as possible and this was better done in a coach than by spending three weeks in a ship drinking with the crew. I must add that I also suffer abominably from seasickness--which weakness I have always been loath to admit, for although Gomesius says such sickness cures sadness of spirit, I have never found it to be the case. Even so, my courage weakened, then evaporated almost entirely, as the journey progressed. The journey to Leiden took only nine weeks, but the sufferings I endured quite took my mind off the sights I was viewing. Once, stuck in the mud halfway through an Alpine pass, the rain coming down in torrents, one horse sick, myself with a fever and a violent-looking soldier as my only companion, I thought that I would rather suffer the worst gale in the Atlantic than such misery.

But it would have been as long to go back as to continue, and I was mindful of the scorn in which I would be held if I returned, shamefaced and weak. to my native town. Shame, I do believe, is the most powerful emotion known to man; most discoveries and journeys of importance have been accomplished because of the ignominy that would be the result if the attempt was abandoned. So, sick for the warmth and comfort of my native land--the English have the word nostalgia for this illness, which they believe is due to the imbalance caused by an unfamiliar environment--I continued on my way, ill-tempered and miserable, until I reached Leiden, where I attended the school of medicine as a gentleman.

So much has been written about this seat of learning, and it has so little to do with my recital, that it suffices to say that I found and profited greatly from two professors of singular ability who lectured on anatomy and bodily economy. I also traveled throughout the Low Countries and fell into good company, much of which was English and from whom I learnt something of the language. I left for the simple reason that my kind good father ordered me so to do and for no other reason. There was some disarray in the London office, a letter told me, and he needed family to intervene: no one else could be trusted. Although I had little practical knowledge of trade, I was glad to be the obedient son, and so discharged my servant, organized my affairs and shipped from Antwerp to investigate. I arrived in London on March 22nd, 1663, with only a few pounds left, the sum I paid to one professor for his teaching having all but exhausted my funds. But I was not concerned, for I thought that all I needed to do was make the short journey from the river to the office maintained by my father's agent, and all would be well. Fool that I was. I could not find di Pietro, and that wretched man John Manston would not even receive me. He is now long since dead; I pray for his soul, and hope the good Lord disregards my entreaties on his behalf, knowing as I do that the longer he suffers fiery torment, the more just his punishment will be.

I had to beg a mere servant for information, and this lad told me that my father's agent had died suddenly some weeks previously. Even worse, Manston had swiftly moved to take all the fortune and business for his own, and refused to admit that any had belonged to my father. Before lawyers he had produced documents (naturally, forged) to prove this assertion. He had, in other words, entirely defrauded my family of our money--that part of it which was in England, at least.

This boy was, unfortunately, at a loss about how I should proceed. I could lay a complaint before a magistrate, but with no evidence except my own convictions this seemed fruitless. I could also consult a lawyer but, if England and Venice differ in many ways, they are alike in one, which is that lawyers have an insatiable love of money, and that was a commodity I did not possess in sufficient quantity.

It also rapidly became clear that London was not a healthy place. I do not mean the famous plague, which had not yet afflicted the city; I mean that Manston, that very evening, sent round hired hands to demonstrate that my life would be more secure elsewhere. Fortunately, they did not kill me; indeed, I acquitted myself well in the brawl thanks to the fees my father had paid to my fencing master, and I believe at least one bravo left the field in a worse state than I. But I took the warning nonetheless and decided to stay out of the way until my course was clearer. I will mention little more of this matter except to say that eventually I abandoned the quest for recompense, and my father decided that the costs involved were not worth the money lost. The matter was reluctantly forgotten for two years, when we heard that one of Manston's boats had put into Trieste to sit out a storm. My family moved to have it seized--Venetian justice being as favorable to Venetians as English law is to Englishmen--and the hull and cargo provided some compensation for our losses.

To have had my father's permission to leave instantly would have raised my spirits immeasurably, for the weather in London was enough to reduce the strongest man to the most wretched despair. The fog, the incessant, debilitating drizzle, and the dull bitter cold as the wind swept through my thin cloak reduced me to the lowest state of despondency. Only duty to my family forced me to continue rather than going to the docks and begging for a passage back home. Instead of taking this sensible course, however, I wrote to my father informing him of developments and promising to do what I could, but pointed out that until I was rearmed from his coffers there was little I might practically accomplish. I had, I realized, many weeks to fill in before he could respond. And about five pounds to survive on.

The professor under whom I had studied in Leiden had most kindly given me letters to gentlemen with whom he had corresponded, and, these being my only contacts with Englishmen, I decided that my best course would be to throw myself on their mercy. An additional attraction was that neither was in London, so I picked the man who lived in Oxford, that being the closest, and decided to leave as swiftly as possible.

The English seem to have strong suspicion of people moving around, and go out of their way to make travel as difficult as possible. According to the piece of paper pasted up where I waited for the coach, the sixty-mile trip to Oxford would take eighteen hours--God Willing, as it added piously. The Almighty, alas, was not willing that day; rain had made much of the road disappear, so the coachman had to navigate his way through what seemed very like a plowed field. A wheel came off a few hours later, tipping my chest on the ground and damaging the lid and, just outside a mean little town called Thame, one of the horses broke a leg and had to be dispatched. Add to that the frequent stops at almost every inn in southern England (the innkeepers bribe the drivers to halt) and the journey took a total of twenty-five hours, with myself ejected into the courtyard of an inn in the main street of the city of Oxford at seven o'clock in the morning.

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First Chapter

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally, I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, wrongly, amongst my friends. I do not intend to pen a lengthy self-justification, or tell in detail how I was deceived and cheated out of renown which should rightfully be mine. My recital, I believe, will speak for itself.

I will leave out much, but nothing of significance. A large part of my tour around that country was of interest only to myself, and finds no mention here. Many of those I met, similarly, were of little consequence. Those who in later years did me harm I describe as I knew them then, and I beg any reader to remember that, although I was hardly callow, I was not yet wise in the ways of the world. If my narrative appears simple and foolish, then you must conclude that the young man of so many years past was similarly so. I do not go back to my portrait to add extra layers of tint and varnish to cover my errors or the weakness of my draughtsmanship. I will make no accusations, and indulge in no polemic against others; rather, I will say what happened, confident that I need do no more.

My father, Giovanni da Cola, was a merchant, and for the last years of his life was occupied in the importation of luxury goods into England which, though an unsophisticated country, was none the less beginning to rouse itself from the effects of revolution. He had shrewdly recognised from afar that the return of King Charles IImeant that vast profits would once again be there for the taking and, stealing a march on more timid traders, he established himself in London to provide the wealthier English with those luxuries which the Puritan zealots had discouraged for so many years. His business prospered: he had a good man in London in Giovanni di Pietro, and also entered into a partnership with an English trader, with whom he split his profit. As he once told me, it was a fair bargain: this John Manston was sly and dishonest, but possessed unrivalled knowledge of English tastes. More importantly, the English had passed a law to stop goods coming into their ports in foreign boats, and Manston was a way through this difficulty. As long as my father had di Pietro in place to keep an eye firmly on the accounts, he believed there was little chance of being cheated.

He was long past the time when he took a direct interest in his business, having already converted a portion of his capital into land on terra firma to prepare for admission to the Golden Book. Although a merchant himself, he intended his children to be gentlemen, and discouraged me from active participation in his business. I mention this as an indication of his goodness: he had noticed early on that I had little mind for trade, and encouraged me to turn my face against the life he led. He also knew that my sister's new husband was more fitted for ventures than I.

So, while my father secured the family name and fortune, I - my mother being dead and one sister usefully married - was in Padua to acquire the smatterings of polite knowledge; he was content to have his son a member of our nobility but did not wish to have me as ignorant as they. At this point and of mature years - I was now rising thirty - I was suddenly struck by a burning enthusiasm to become a citizen of the Republic of Learning, as it is called. This sudden passion I can no longer recall, so completely has it left me, but then the fascination of the new experimental philosophy held me under its spell. It was, of course, a matter of the spirit rather than of practical application. I say with Beroaldus, non sum medicus, nec medicinae prorsus expers: in the theory of physic I have taken some pains, not with an intent to practise, but to satisfy myself. I had neither desire nor need to gain a living in such a fashion, although occasionally, I confess with shame, I taunted my poor, good father by saying that unless he was kind to me, I would take my revenge by becoming a physician.

I imagine that he knew all along I would do no such thing, and that in reality I was merely captivated by ideas and people as exciting as they were dangerous. As a result, he raised no objections when I wrote to him about the reports of one professor who, though nominally charged with lecturing in rhetoric, spent much of his time enlarging upon the latest developments in natural philosophy. This man had travelled widely and maintained that, for all serious students of natural phenomena, the Low Countries and England were no longer to be disdained. After many months in his care, I caught his enthusiasm and, having little to detain me in Padua, requested permission to tour that part of the world. Kind man that he was, my father immediately gave his assent, procured permission for me to leave Venetian territory, and sent a bill of credit to his bankers in Flanders for my use.

I had thought of taking advantage of my position to go by sea, but decided that, if I was to acquire knowledge, then it would be best to see as much as possible and this was better done in a coach than by spending three weeks in a ship drinking with the crew. I must add that I also suffer abominably from sea-sickness - which weakness I have always been loath to admit, for although Gomesius says it cures sadness of spirit, I have never found it to be the case. Even so, my courage weakened, then evaporated almost entirely, as the journey progressed. The journey to Leiden took only nine weeks, but the sufferings I endured quite took my mind off the sights I was viewing. Once, stuck in the mud half-way through an Alpine pass, the rain coming down in torrents, one horse sick, myself with a fever and a violent-looking soldier as my only companion, I thought that I would rather suffer the worst gale in the Atlantic than such misery.

But it would have been as long to go back as to continue, and I was mindful of the scorn in which I would be held if I returned, shamefaced and weak, to my native town. Shame, I do believe, is the most powerful emotion known to man; most discoveries and journeys of importance have been accomplished because of the ignominy that would be the result if the attempt was abandoned. So, sick for the warmth and comfort of my native land - the English have the word nostalgia for this illness, which they believe is due to the imbalance caused by an unfamiliar environment - I continued on my way, ill tempered and miserable, until I reached Leiden, where I attended the school of medicine as a gentleman.

So much has been written about this seat of learning, and it has so little to do with my recital, that it suffices to say that I found and profited greatly from two professors of singular ability who lectured on anatomy and bodily economy. I also travelled throughout the Low Countries and fell into good company, much of which was English and from whom I learnt something of the language. I left for the simple reason that my kind father ordered me so to do and for no other reason. There was some disarray in the London office, a letter told me, and he needed family to intervene: no one else could be trusted. Although I had little practical knowledge of trade, I was glad to be the obedient son, so discharged my servant, organised my affairs, and shipped from Antwerp to investigate. I arrived in London on March 22nd, 1663 with only a few pounds left, the sum I paid to one professor for his teaching having all but exhausted my funds. But I was not concerned, for I thought that all I needed to do was make the short journey from the river to the office maintained by my father's agent, and all would be well. Fool that I was. I could not find di Pietro, and that wretched man John Manston would not even receive me. He is now long since dead; I pray for his soul, and hope the good Lord disregards my entreaties on his behalf, knowing as I do that the longer he suffers fiery torment, the more just his punishment will be.

I had to beg a mere servant for information, and this lad told me that my father's agent had died suddenly some weeks previously. Even worse, Manston had moved swiftly to take all the fortune and business for his own, and refused to admit that any had belonged to my father. Before lawyers he had produced documents (forged, naturally) to prove this assertion. He had, in other words, entirely defrauded my family of our money - that part of it which was in England, at least.

This boy was, unfortunately, at a loss about how I should proceed. I could lay a complaint before a magistrate, but with no evidence except my own convictions this seemed fruitless. I could also consult a lawyer but, if England and Venice differ in many ways, they are alike in one, which is that lawyers have an insatiable love of money, and that was a commodity I did not possess in sufficient quantity.

It also rapidly became clear that London was not a healthy place. I do not mean the famous plague, which had not yet afflicted the city; I mean that Manston, that very evening, sent round hired hands to demonstrate that my life would be more secure elsewhere. Fortunately, they did not kill me; indeed, I acquitted myself well in the brawl thanks to the fees my father had paid to my fencing master, and I believe at least one bravo left the field in a worse state than I. But I took the warning none the less and decided to stay out of the way until my course was clearer. I will mention little more of this matter except to say that eventually I abandoned the quest for recompense, and my father decided that the costs involved were not worth the money lost. The matter was reluctantly forgotten for two years, when we heard that one of Manston's boats had put into Trieste to sit out a storm. My family moved to have it seized - Venetian justice being as favourable to Venetians as English law is to Englishmen - and the hull and cargo provided some compensation for our losses.

To have had my father's permission to leave instantly would have raised my spirits immeasurably, for the weather in London was enough to reduce the strongest man to the most wretched despair. The fog, the incessant, debilitating drizzle, and the dull bitter cold as the wind swept through my thin cloak reduced me to the lowest state of despondency. Only duty to my family forced me to continue rather than going to the docks and begging for a passage back home. Instead of taking this sensible course, however, I wrote to my father informing him of developments and promising to do what I could, but pointed out that until I was re-armed from his coffers there was little I might practically accomplish. I had, I realised, many weeks to fill in before he could respond. And about five pounds to survive on.

The professor under whom I had studied in Leiden had most kindly given me letters to two gentlemen with whom he had corresponded, and, these being my only contacts with Englishmen, I decided that my best course would be to throw myself on their mercy. An additional attraction was that neither was in London, so I picked the man who lived in Oxford, that being the closest, and decided to leave as swiftly as possible.

The English seem to have strong suspicion of people moving around, and go out of their way to make travel as difficult as possible. According to the piece of paper pasted up where I waited for the coach, the sixty-mile trip to Oxford would take eighteen hours - God Willing, as it added piously. The Almighty, alas, was not willing that day; rain had made much of the road disappear, so the coachman had to navigate his way through what seemed very like a ploughed field. A wheel came off a few hours later, tipping my chest on the ground and damaging the lid and, just outside a mean little town called Thame, one of the horses broke a leg and had to be dispatched. Add to that the frequent stops at almost every inn in southern England (the innkeepers bribe the drivers to halt) and the journey took a total of twenty-five hours, with myself ejected into the courtyard of an inn in the main street of the city of Oxford at seven o'clock in the morning.
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Interviews & Essays

Before the live bn.com chat, Iain Pears agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q:  Who would you consider some of your literary influences? Why?

A:  Robertson Davies, who was one of the (fairly few) authors I would have liked to have met. More than anyone in recent years, he managed to be profoundly serious, very funny, and an extraordinary storyteller. Lawrence Durrell, despite his many faults, because he avoided all of the pitfalls of recent English writing. Among historical novelists, Lampedusa, Druon, and Yourcenar for their sense of atmosphere, and amongst historians (my main affection), Peter Brown, Ernst Gombrich, and Carlo Ginzburg for being smarter than anybody has a right to be. Early Le Carre, for his amazing ability at structure, and Simenon among detective novelists, for a brevity I don't seem to have any more.

Q:  What initially compelled you to write about 1663 Restoration England?

A:  Mainly because of the similarities to our own times -- a period when a great ideology and movement suddenly collapsed (Puritanism and Republicanism then, socialism now), leaving people with a disjointed sense of who they were; also because (then as now) people had to confront the dangers and opportunities of scientific advance. Also because of the differences -- the main one being the overwhelming importance of religion in everyday life.

Q:  I see that in addition to your fiction, you have written books on art and art history. Do you have any artistic aspirations of your own?

A:  None whatsoever, luckily for the world. Can't draw, can't paint, and my singing frightens the animals.

Q:  How would you describe your experience as a Reuters correspondent?

A:  Enjoyable frenzy buried in long periods of waiting for something to happen. Having to see a story, write it up, and get it out within 60 seconds does cure you forever of writer's block. And it demonstrated how interesting the oddest things can be sometimes. Even skiing and the foreign exchange markets.

Q:  Having lived in various locations around the world, how do you enjoy living in Oxford, England?

A:  More than I expected. The weather's rotten, the food isn't so good, and I miss Italy terribly, but it's beautiful, I live a few minutes from everything I need, and I have no more commuting. And London is only an hour away, assuming the trains haven't broken down again. Besides, I moved 20 times in 12 years, and that gets tiresome after a while.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
An Instance of the Fingerpost

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 IAN 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.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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."
  5. 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"?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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).
  9. 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?
  10. 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?

PRAISE

"Ingenious." —Philadelphia Inquirer

"Enthralling." —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

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

A Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club

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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.

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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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