Stone's Fall

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Overview

A return to the form that launched Iain Pears onto bestseller lists around the world: a vast historical mystery, marvelous in its ambition and ingenius in its complexity.

In his most dazzling novel since the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears tells the story of John Stone, financier and arms dealer, a man so wealthy that in the years before World War One he was able to manipulate markets, ...

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Overview

A return to the form that launched Iain Pears onto bestseller lists around the world: a vast historical mystery, marvelous in its ambition and ingenius in its complexity.

In his most dazzling novel since the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears tells the story of John Stone, financier and arms dealer, a man so wealthy that in the years before World War One he was able to manipulate markets, industries, and indeed entire countries and continents.

A panoramic novel with a riveting mystery at its heart, Stone’s Fall is a quest to discover how and why John Stone dies, falling out of a window at his London home.

Chronologically, it moves backwards–from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890, and finally to Venice in 1867– and in the process the quest to uncover the truth plays 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.

Like Fingerpost, Stone’s Fall is an intricately plotted and richly satisfying puzzle–an erudite work of history and fiction that feels utterly true and oddly timely–and marks the triumphant return of one of the world’s great storytellers.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“When I read Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost years ago, I thought it was so brilliantly plotted, so compulsively entertaining, so utterly engrossing that I gave it to my father and said, 'This is the new Dickens.' Stone's Fall is better.”—Malcolm Gladwell

“Mr. Pears’s assured command of period history, language, lore, and attitudes is formidable.”The Wall Street Journal

From the Hardcover edition.

Anna Mundow
Admirers of Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost have waited more than 10 years for another lengthy, serpentine thriller bearing the stamp of his erudition in matters historical, artistic and financial. Stone's Fall generously rewards their patience. A marvel of skillful agglomeration, the novel propels us backward in time to illuminate one man's rise and fall. The trajectory may be familiar, even predictable, but this particular tragedy encompasses the entire history of late mid-19th- to early-20th-century capitalism and provides enough romance and intrigue to fuel a dozen operas.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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.
Library Journal

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.]
—David Keymer

Kirkus Reviews
A learned, witty and splendidly entertaining descent into the demimondes of international espionage, arms dealing, financial hanky-panky and other favorite pastimes of those without conscience. "You will have to believe whatever you think is most likely," sagely counsels one of the many shadowy characters in this latest outing by historical whodunit specialist Pears (The Portrait, 2005, etc.). Early on, the fellow being asked to do the believing is a journalist who takes on a curious but lucrative side job tracking down the illegitimate heir of a minor member of the nobility, one who just happens to have a fantastic estate at stake. Baron Ravenscliff recently fell out of a window and broke into many pieces; says a fellow hack, "Only an accident, unfortunately." Ah, but was it? Drawn into this promising query, our enterprising narrator finds himself doing what a good sleuth in Edwardian England might do: He consults with street characters out of Dickens and terrorists worthy of Conrad's Secret Agent, sniffs out intelligence, beats the constabulary at its own game and gets-well, nowhere, really, since so little of what he learns about the baron, the former John Stone, quite adds up. As he muses, "So Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, nee Countess Elizabeth Hadik-Barkoczy von Futak uns Szala, transformed herself into Jenny the Red, revolutionary anarchist of Frankfurt. Repeat that sentence and see how easily you believe it. Then you will grasp my difficulties." Pears's tale turns back on itself and into the past until, deep into the book, we find that our first narrator has gone underground and none other than Stone is telling his own tale, which by this time has gotten deliciously tangled.Suffice it to say that the long but fast-paced story involves, among many other things, plenty of spy-versus-spy stuff, a whiff of romance and a plan to fill the world with enough all-destroying weapons that no one would ever dare go to war-an epic James Bond tale, in other words, by way of G.K. Chesterton and perhaps Arturo Perez-Reverte. Classy crime fiction, delightfully written, with few straight lines in sight. Author tour to New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. Agent: Felicity Bryan/ Felicity Bryan Agency
The Barnes & Noble Review
Iain Pears's literary gift lies in zipping around history and arranging smackdowns between different paradigms of reality and their incommensurable versions of truth and moral value. That should be enough to make your heart pound, but to ensure it, he jazzes up the contests with murder and mysterious death. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears's most famous performance, is a truly ingenious tour de force set in 17th-century England -- itself a milieu whose like, for untrammeled intellectual, political, and cosmological commotion, we'll not see again. Now we have Stone's Fall, another slugfest of ideas with a baffling death at its center, this one embellished by a growing constellation of murders surrounding it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine A. Powers writes the literary column "A Reading Life" for the Boston Sunday Globe and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780739354377
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/5/2009
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Iain Pears was born in 1955. He is the author of the international bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Dream of Scipio, a series of highly praised detective novels, a book of art history, an opera libretto, and countless articles on artistic, financial, and historical subjects.
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Read an Excerpt

Part One

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 currency—called in a few favours at the Bank of England even—to 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 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 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."

"Oh?"

"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 know—it'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. Whitely—formerly Captain Whitely, so he told me—had 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 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 there were all those children 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 some, I remember. The lone and level sands stretch far away, you know."

"Pardon?"

"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 . . ."

"Goodness."

"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."

"My apologies."

"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.

"1944."

"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.

Chapter One

London, 1909

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 inducement—a drink, a meal, a present for their children—as 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 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 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 pint—his fourth that morning, and it was only ten o'clock—and 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 hand—I 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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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2010

    Gets bogged down in details

    I listened to the audio version of this book, so perhaps it was better to read that listen to. The details really bogged down an intriguing plot that took way to long to conclude, and I often found myself drifting. The 'shocking final twist' I could see coming and was just too coincidental to be believable. When I got to part three, I listened to the first disk and the last two, and skipped the three in the middle and don't feel like I missed anything - that is how much extra detail was in this book.

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