AN Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel

AN Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel

by Iain Pears


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AN Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel by Iain Pears

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 erudite and entertaining tour de force." —People

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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573227957
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/2000
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 216,403
Product dimensions: 6.03(w) x 9.04(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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.


Oxford, England

Date of Birth:



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.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“May well be the best ‘historical mystery’ ever written.”—The Sunday Boston Globe
“Ingenious.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[A] crafty, utterly mesmerizing intellectual thriller…Don’t miss it.” —The Washington Post Book World
“If you liked Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, you should run to buy Iain Pears’s lavishly erudite historical mystery.” —The New York Times
“Fascinating…quite extraordinary…elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art.” —Los Angeles
“Extraordinary…this thriller brings not merely a huge cast of characters but a whole century vividly to life.” —Newsweek
“[A] novel that will have you sitting up all night and calling in sick the next day.  It’s that hard to put down.” —Houston Chronicle
“Enthralling.” —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

Reading Group Guide

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.


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.


  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?


"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


Before the live 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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