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. Judging from early reviews, 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."
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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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Pears answered some of our questions in this 1998 interview.
Who would you consider some of your literary influences? Why?
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 Carré, for his amazing ability at structure, and Simenon among detective novelists, for a brevity I don't seem to have any more.
What initially compelled you to write about 1663 Restoration England?
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.
In addition to your fiction, you have written books on art and art history. Do you have any artistic aspirations of your own?
None whatsoever, luckily for the world. Can't draw, can't paint, and my singing frightens the animals.
How would you describe your experience as a Reuters correspondent?
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.
Having lived in various locations around the world, how do you enjoy living in Oxford, England?
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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