The Washington Post
Stone's Fallby Iain Pears
At his London home, John Stone falls out of a window to his death. A financier and arms dealer, Stone was a man so wealthy that he was able to manipulate markets, industries, and indeed entire countries and continents. Did he jump, was he pushed, or was it merely a tragic accident? His alluring and enigmatic widow hires a young crime reporter to investigate. The… See more details below
At his London home, John Stone falls out of a window to his death. A financier and arms dealer, Stone was a man so wealthy that he was able to manipulate markets, industries, and indeed entire countries and continents. Did he jump, was he pushed, or was it merely a tragic accident? His alluring and enigmatic widow hires a young crime reporter to investigate. The story moves backward in time—from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890 and finally to Venice in 1867—and the attempts to uncover the truth play out against the backdrop of the evolution of high-stakes international finance, Europe’s first great age of espionage, and the start of the twentieth century’s arms race. Stone’s Fall is a tale of love and frailty, as much as it is of high finance and skulduggery. The mixture, then, as now, is an often fatal combination.
The Washington Post
British author Pears matches the brilliance of his bestselling An Instance of the Fingerpost(1998) with this intricate historical novel, which centers on the death of a wealthy financier. In part one, after John Stone falls to his death from a window in his London mansion in 1909, Stone's seductive, much younger widow, Elizabeth, hires Matthew Braddock, who works as a journalist, to trace a child of her late husband's she never knew existed until the child is named in his will. Braddock, a novice in the world of finance, uncovers evidence that Stone's actual net worth was far less than commonly believed, even as he finds himself falling for his client. In part two, set in 1890 Paris, Henry Cort, a shadowy spy, provides another perspective on the bewitching Elizabeth. Stone's own reminiscences from his time in Venice in 1867 cast further light on the circumstances of his demise. The pages will fly by for most readers, who will lose themselves in the clear prose and compelling plot. 10-city author tour. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
An aging ex-reporter attends the funeral of an elderly widow. A solicitor approaches him and hands him a packet of papers that were to be delivered to him only after the woman's death. Reading them, he is transported back to events he has never forgotten. In 1909, industrialist-arms seller John Stone fell to his death from the window of his study. In his will, he left a bequest to an unknown daughter. His widow asked the young reporter to find the daughter, setting him on a search that transforms his life. Back through time the story goes-London 1909, Paris 1890, Venice 1867-with startling revelations at every step. This eminently readable tale is like one of those Russian dolls in which a tiny doll nests inside a bigger one and the bigger one inside another one bigger yet. The further you read, the more complicated it is until everything falls together in the final pages. This latest from Pears (Dream of Scipio) is in the best sense of the word an old-fashioned novel, populated with vital characters and bursting at the seams with narrative vigor. Highly recommended for all general collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/09.]
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. --Katherine A. Powers
Katherine A. Powers writes the literary column "A Reading Life" for the Boston Sunday Globe and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Mr. Pears’s assured command of period history, language, lore, and attitudes is formidable.”–The Wall Street Journal
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Read an Excerpt
Paris, March 1953.
The Church of Saint-Germain des Pres, at the start of what was supposed to be Spring, is a miserable place, made worse by the drabness of a city still in a state of shock, worse still by the little coffin in front of the altar which was my reason for being there, worse again by the aches and pains of my body as I kneeled.
She'd died a week before I arrived. I hadn't even realised she was still alive; she must have been well into her eighties, and the hardships of the past few years had weakened many a younger person. She would not have been impressed, but something approaching a real prayer for her did come into my mind, just before I struggled back onto the pew. Age has few compensations; the indignity of discomfort, the effort to conceal constant nagging pain, is most certainly not one of them.
Until I read the Figaro that morning and saw the announcement, I had been enjoying myself. I was on a farewell tour; the powers-that-be had scraped together enough foreign currencycalled in a few favours at the Bank of England evento allow me to travel. My last visit to the foreign bureaux before I retired; to Paris. Not many people could do that sort of thing these daysand would not until foreign exchange restrictions were lifted. It was a little mark of respect, and one that I appreciated.
It was a fine enough service, I thought, although I was not an expert. The priests took their time, the choir sang prettily enough, the prayers were said, and it was all over. A short eulogy paid tribute to her tireless, selfless work for the unfortunate but said nothing of her character. The congregation was mainly freshly scrubbed and intense-looking children, who were clipped around the ear by teachers if they made any untoward noise. I looked around, to see who would take charge of the next round, but no one seemed to know what to do. Eventually the undertaker took over. The body, he said, would be interred in Pere Lachaise that afternoon, at two o'clock, at 15, Chemin du Dragon. All who wished to attend were welcome. Then the pallbearers picked up the coffin and marched out, leaving the mourners feeling lost and cold.
"Excuse me, but is your name Braddock? Matthew Braddock?"
A quiet voice of a young man, neatly dressed, with a black band around his arm. I nodded, and he held out his hand. "My name is Whitely," he said. "Harold Whitely, of Henderson, Bailey, Fenton. I recognised you from newsreels."
"Solicitors, you know. We dealt with Madame Robillard's residual legal business in England. Not that there was much of it. I am so glad to meet you; I was planning to write in any case, once I got back."
"Really? She didn't leave me any money, did she?"
He smiled. "I'm afraid not. By the time she died she was really quite poor."
"Goodness gracious me," I said, with a smile.
"Why the surprise?"
"She was very wealthy when I knew her."
"I'd heard that. But I knew her only as a sweet old lady with a weakness for worthy causes. But I found her charming, on the few occasions we met. Quite captivating in fact."
"Yes, that's her," I replied. "Why did you come to the funeral?"
"A tradition of the firm," he said with a grimace. "We bury all our clients. A last service. But, you knowit's a trip to Paris, and there's not much opportunity of that these days. Unfortunately, I could get hold of so little currency I have to go straight back this evening."
"I have a little more than that, so would you care for a drink?"
He nodded, and we walked down the Boulevard Saint-Germain to a cafe, past the grim buildings blackened with the filth of a century or more of smoke and fumes. Whitelyformerly Captain Whitely, so he told mehad a slightly annoying tendency to grip my elbow at the difficult bits to make sure I did not trip and fall. I didn't mind, although the assumption of decrepitude was a little annoying.
A good brandy; she deserved no less, and we drank her health by the plate glass window as we sat on our rickety wooden chairs. "Madame Robillard," we intoned, several times over, becoming more garrulous as we drank. He told me of life in Intelligence during the warthe time of his life, he said wistfully, now gone for good and replaced with daily toil as a London solicitor. I told him stories of reporting for the BBC; of D-Day, of telling the world about the Blitz. All yesterday, and another age.
"Who was her husband?" I asked. "I assume he is long dead."
"Robillard died about a decade ago. He ran the orphanages and schools with her."
"Is that why there were all those children in the church?"
"I imagine so. She started her first home after the warthe first war. There were so many orphans and abandoned children, and she somehow got involved with them. By the end there were about ten or twelve schools and orphanages, I gather, all run on the very latest humanitarian principles. They consumed her entire fortune, in fact, so much so that I imagine they will all be taken over by the state now."
"A good enough use for it. When I knew her she was married to Lord Ravenscliff. That was more than forty years ago, though."
I paused. Whitely looked blank. "Have you heard of Ravenscliff?" I enquired.
"No," he said. "Should I have?"
I thought, then shook my head. "Maybe not. He was an industrialist, but most of his companies disappeared in the Depression. Some closed, others were bought up. Vickers took over some, I remember. The lone and level sands stretch far away, you know."
"Nothing." I breathed in the thick air of cigarette smoke and damp, then attracted the waiter's eye and called for more drinks. It seemed a good idea. Whitely was not cheering me up at all. It was quiet; few people around, and the waiters were prepared to work hard for the few customers they had. One of them almost smiled, but managed to restrain himself.
"Tell me about her," I said when we were refilled once more. "I hadn't seen her for many years. I only discovered she was dead by chance."
"Not much to say. She lived in an apartment just up the road here, went to church, did good works, and outlived her friends. She read a great deal, and loved going to the cinema. I understand she had a weakness for Humphrey Bogart films. Her English was excellent, for a Frenchwoman."
"She lived in England when I knew her. Hungarian by birth, though."
"Apart from that there's nothing to say, is there?"
"I suppose not. A quiet and blameless life. What were you going to write to me about?"
"Hmm? Oh, that. Well, Mr. Henderson, you know, our senior partner. He died a year ago and we've been clearing out his papers. There was a package for you."
"For me? What is it? Gold? Jewels? Dollar bills? Swiss watches? I could use some of those. We old age pensioners . . ."
"I couldn't say what's in it. It's sealed. It was part of the estate of Mr. Henry Cort . . ."
"You knew him, I assume?"
"We met, many years ago."
"As I say, part of the Cort estate. Curious thing is that it carried instructions that you were to be given it only on Madame Robillard's death. Which was very exciting for us. There isn't much excitement in a solicitor's office, let me tell you. Hence my intention to write to you. Do you know why?"
"I have absolutely no idea. I scarcely knew Cort at all, and certainly haven't even cast eyes on him for more than thirty years. I came across him when I was writing a biography of Madame Robillard's first husband. That's how I knew her as well."
"I hope it was a great success."
"Unfortunately not. I never finished it. The reaction of most publishers was about as enthusiastic as your own was when I mentioned his name."
"It was a long time ago. I went back to being a journalist, then joined the BBC when it started up, after the war. The first war. When did Cort die?" Curious how, the older you get, the more important other people's deaths become.
"When I get back, send me your package. If it's valuable, I'll be glad to get it. But I doubt it will be. As far as I remember, Cort didn't like me very much. I certainly didn't like him."
And then we ran out of things to say to each other, as strangers of different generations do. I paid and began my old man's routine of wrapping myself up, coat hat, scarf, gloves, pulling everything tight to keep out the bitterness of the weather. Whitely pulled on a thin, threadbare coat. Army demob, by the look of it. But he didn't seem half as cold as I was just thinking of going outside.
"Are you going to the cemetery?"
"That would be the death of me as well. She would not have expected it, and probably would have thought me sentimental. And I have a train at four. When I get back I will dig out my old notes to see how much I actually remember, and how much I merely think I remember."
I took my train from the Gare de Lyon that afternoon, and the cold of Paris faded, along with thoughts of Madame Virginie Robillard, formerly Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, as I went south to the greater warmth of a Mediterranean spring.
She remained in the back of my mind wherever I went, whatever I saw, until I returned to my little house in Hampstead to dig out my old notes. Then I went to visit Mr. Whitely.
When I became involved in the life and death of William John Stone, First (and last) Baron Ravenscliff, I was working as a journalist. You note I do not say I was a journalist. Merely working as one. It is one of the better kept secrets of the trade that you do have to be quite serious if you wish to have any success. You spend long hours hanging around in pubs, waiting for something to happen, and when it does, it is often of no great interest. I specialised in court cases, and so lived my life around the Old Bailey, eating with my fellows, dozing with them during boring testimony, drinking with them as we awaited a verdict, then running back to the office to knock out some deathless prose.
Murders were the best, of course. "Railway Trunk Murderer to Hang." "Ealing Strangler Begs for Mercy." They all had nicknames, the good ones, anyway. I made up many of them myself; I had a sort of facility for a snappy phrase. I even did what no other reporter did, which was occasionally to investigate a case from the very beginnings; I spent a small portion of my paper's money on policemen, who were then as susceptible to a small inducementa drink, a meal, a present for their childrenas they are now. I became very able at understanding how the police and murderers worked. Far too good at it, in the eyes of my grander colleagues, who thought it squalid. In my defence I can say that it was an interest shared with much of the newspaper-buying public, who loved nothing more than a good garrotting to read about on a Sunday morning, just before going to church to think about love for one's fellow man. The best thing was a beautiful young woman, done to death in a particularly horrible way. Always a crowd pleaser, that.
And it appeared that it was because of some expertise of mine that I came across Lord Ravenscliff. Or his widow, from whom I received a letter, one fine April morning, asking me to come and see her. This was about a fortnight after he died, although that event had rather passed me by at the time.
"Anyone know anything about Lady Elizabeth Ravenscliff?" I asked in the Duck, where I was breakfasting on a pint of beer and a sausage roll. It was fairly empty that morning; there had not been a decent trial for weeks and none in the offing either. Even the judges were complaining that the criminal classes seemed to have lost their appetite for work.
My enquiry was met with a communal grunt that signified a total lack of interest.
"Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff. Do get it right." It was George Short who replied, an old man who was the very definition of a hack. He could turn his hand to anything, and was a better reporter blind drunk than any of his fellowsincluding mesober. Give him some information, and he would write it up. And if you didn't give him some information, he would make it up so perfectly the result was better than the truth. Which is, in fact, another one of the rules of journalism. Fiction is generally better than reality, and is usually more trustworthy.
George, who dressed so appallingly that he was once arrested for vagrancy, put down his pinthis fourth that morning, and it was only ten o'clockand wiped his stubbly chin. Rather like the aristocracy, you can tell a reporter's status by his clothes and manners. The worse they are, the higher up they are, as only the lowly have to make a good impression. George had to impress no one. Everyone knew him, from judges down to the criminals themselves, and all called him George, and most would stand him a drink. At that stage I was more than a beginner, but less than an old handI had abandoned the ill-fitting black suit and was now affecting tweeds and a pipe, aiming at the literary, raffish look which, I thought, quite suited me. Few agreed with my opinion, but I felt rather splendid when I looked at myself in the mirror of a morning.
"Very well. Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, then. Who is she?" I replied.
"The wife of Lord Ravenscliff. Widow, rather."
"And he was?"
"A Baron," said George, who sometimes took the rule about giving all relevant information a little too far. "Given a peerage in 1902, as I recall. I don't know why, he probably bought it like they all do. John Stone was his name. Money man of some sort, I think. Fell out of a window a couple of weeks back. Only an accident, unfortunately."
"What sort of money man?"
"How should I know? He had money. What's it to you, anyway?"
I handed him the letter.
George tapped his pipe on the heel of his shoe and sniffed loudly.
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Ian Pears' seems to like the idea that nothing is ever the same when viewed from the differing perspectives of the narrators who made up his cast of characters. He has done this before in "An Instance of the Fingerpost" and my favorite, "The Dream of Scipio". In this one, the narrators move back in time to the origin of one of the central characters. Each narrator has a point of view based on his own knowledge of the situation. Certainly will keep you reading to the end of the mystery. The language is very much in keeping with the Victorian era in which the book is set. Very proper and very wordy, but intriguing.
This author continues to illuminate different periods of time and place (here early 20th century England and Europe) with amazing plot twists and story lines. Always approaches things intelligently with the history as background but essential to understanding what's going on with the characters and plot.
If I could I would rate it as six stars. It has great language, fantastic plot, and a deep and rich psychological insight. I still cannot believe that a book focusing on business, finances, and industrial development can be breath taking and so positive. And, Pears is a master creator of the characters. Must read great piece of literature.
This story is told by three narrators in different times and places who come together at various times in their lives even if unbeknownst to some when they do. It is, in a way, an interesting puzzle to be solved, with the reader finding out where the pieces may fall, sometimes before or just as the characters themselves do. The book begins in May 1953 in Paris with the funeral of Madame Robillard, who, we learn later is one of the main characters in the story. This part of the book is told from the viewpoint of Matthew Braddock, a journalist and BBC news reporter, who was in Paris for a final business trip prior to his retirement. He had not realized she was still alive, and just happened to learn of her death by reading the newspaper. After the funeral service, Braddock is approached by one of Madame Robillard's solicitors, and eventually given documents left for him by Henry Cort when he died. A stipulation was that the documents were not to be delivered to Braddock until the death of Madame Robillard. The rest of this part of the book is Braddock's memories of what happened forty years prior when he was a young newspaper reporter hired by Madame Robillard, known then as Lady Ravenscliff, to research her husband's death which occurred in London in 1909. Part Two of the book is told by Henry Cort in 1890 Paris. Mr. Cort was a British spy. Part Three is presented from the memories of John Stone in Venice in 1867. John Stone was the husband of Lady Ravenscliff who died in 1909. I was a bit mystified at first when I saw the three parts were not presented in chronological order. At the end of Part One, I wondered why there was more to read. It seemed to be a perfectly satisfactory ending. However by the end of the book I understood why the author arranged the book in the way he did. There was no other way to write the story, now that I see it in its whole and the second and third parts were necessary. The historical references throughout the book are educational without being dry. I also liked the financial information presented by the characters, even though friends of mine who read the book said they skipped over parts of it. I read every one of the 610 pages, some more than once. It is that type of book you want to keep reading, but when it ends, you know there is no more to be said. I found it an enjoyable read with unforgettable characters and scenes. Unlike some books, there were times I didn't have a feel for where the story was going next, but I just went along and was richly rewarded for doing so. I can't say more about the details without ruining the story for you.
At times I wanted to give up on this book--there are so many characters, so many twists, and some of the "financial information" was tedious at times. However, I'm very glad I stuck with it, because the final twist literally made me gasp out loud. I still think I understand only 98% of what happened, but no matter. It was entertaining and fun.
a very well written book with an amazing group of characters. Amazingly intricate detail but not to the point that it is boring... highly recomend!
I was extraordinarily disappointed in this book, since Mr. Pears has a rather inflated reputation. But Stone's Fall retells essentially the same story from three different viewpoints, is loaded with long, boring, and completely irrelevant descriptive passages, and concludes with a totally bizarre explanation. You come away from this book feeling that you have wasted a great deal of time reading a badly written book, with a strange plot, and an even odder conclusion. Howardeagle
William John Stone, Baron Ravenscliff, the wealthy English industrialist, has died. Not unusual for a man of his age, but his death was not of old age or disease. Instead, he fell to his death from his office window; a second floor room. When his will is read, he leaves everything to his wife, Elizabeth, with two exceptions. He leaves a legacy to a French woman no one has heard him speak of, and he leaves a legacy to a child he apparently fathered that no one knew about. Since the will cannot be settled until these two legacies are distributed, Lady Elizabeth engages the services of a newspaper journalist, to investigate and find the two recipients. Matthew Braddock, a young reporter with nothing to recommend him except his ingenuity and quick intelligence is her pick. As Matthew delves into Stone's life, he must learn about the world of finance where Stone was king. Stone knew little about politics, or the arts, but he knew everything about money and how it could be used to create dynasties and political alliances that bound countries together. Braddock is soon involved in a world of complex intrigue. He learns of Stone's involvement with spies, about beautiful women and betrayals, of backgrounds full of secrets, of amazing kindnesses and casual cruelties. The plot twists and turns back onto itself, making connections that the reader doesn't see coming. At the end, a twist that will remain in readers' minds long after the book is completed, hits them like a runaway train. This book is recommended for mystery readers who like complex plots and a slow unfolding. It is not incredibly violent, but requires the full attention of the reader. Pears has created memorable characters whose layers are slowly revealed until the astonishing denouement.
I'd really like to give this three-and-a-half stars, since I had a difficult time liking any of the characters much. The novel is part mystery (which revolves around a beautiful woman of unknown origin) and partly a chronicle of the rise of world financial empires during the last part of the 19th century. It was often hard for me to wade through the machinations of the the banking and investment industries. The mystery was more absorbing to me, but generally I found the writing a bit dry. Overall, though, Iain Pears fans will not be disappointed.
This book is long and complex, but well worth the time. I will not spoil it, but the very last plot twist was just amazing... I never saw it coming. I consider that high praise, since a lot of books are so transparent as to where they are heading. Parts of it are confusing, especially the sections dealing with complicated financial issues, but you don't have to understand all of it to follow the plot. I really enjoyed this book and expect to be hard pressed to read another as well written and plotted. But I will be looking...