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 story… See more details below
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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.]
“Mr. Pears’s assured command of period history, language, lore, and attitudes is formidable.”–The Wall Street Journal
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Paris, March 1953
The Church of St.-Germain des Prés, at the start of what was supposed to be spring, was 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 currency to allow me to travel. My last visit to the foreign bureaux before I retired. Not many people could do that sort of thing these days – and 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, 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 Père 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, Lansbury, 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. 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 know – it’s a trip to Paris, and there’s not much opportunity for 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 St.-Germain to a café, past grim buildings blackened with the filth of a century or more of smoke and fumes. Whitely – formerly Captain Whitely, so he told me – had an annoying tendency to grip my elbow at the difficult bits to make sure I did not trip and fall. It was thoughtful, although the assumption of decrepitude was irritating.
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 war – the 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 all those children were in the church?”
“I imagine so. She started her first home after the war – the 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 a few, 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; not many 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 our glasses 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 prospective 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 what is in it?”
“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 even 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. 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 at the thought of going outside.
“Are you going to the cemetery?”
“That would be the death of me. 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 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 John William 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 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: “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 myself; I spent a portion of my paper’s money on policemen, who were as susceptible then to a small inducement – a drink, a meal, a present for their children – as they are now. I became adept at understanding how the police and murderers worked. Far too good at it, in the eyes of my grander colleagues, who thought me 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. The best thing was a beautiful young woman, done to death in a particularly horrible way. Always a crowd pleaser, that.
And it was because of this small 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 fellows – including me – sober. 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 rule of journalism. Fiction is generally better than reality, is usually more trustworthy, and always more believable.
George, who dressed so appallingly that he was once arrested for vagrancy, put down his pint – his fourth that morning, and it was only ten o’clock – and wiped his stubbly chin. 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 hand – I had abandoned my dark 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. Moneyman of some sort. Fell out of a window a couple of weeks back. Only an accident, unfortunately.”
“What sort of moneyman?”
“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. “Not very informative,” he replied, handing it back. “Can’t be for your looks, or your talent, or your dress sense. Or your wit and charm. Maybe she needs a gardener?”
I made a face at him.
“Are you going to go?”
“Don’t expect much. And be on your guard. These people take a lot, and give nothing back.” It was the nearest I ever heard him come to a political opinion.
From the Hardcover edition.
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