Riverhead is marketing the
hell out of historian Iain Pears' first novel,
Instance of the Fingerpost, and the media seems
turned on by the hype -- you'd almost believe this
was "the literary thriller of the year." Don't be
surprised if midway through this sprawling and
seemingly endless tome, however, you feel like
suing the publishers (and certain critics) for fraud.
If this book is a thriller, then I'm Edgar Allan
For Pears and certain other moderately talented
writers, history provides a sturdy hook to hang a
shabby coat upon. It gives a sense of legitimacy
-- even intellectual clout -- to writers such as
Caleb Carr, whose novels are trotted out with
Umberto Eco-ish pretensions. (In Carr's case, it's
the jacket designer and the marketers who are the
real artists, gulling readers into thinking it must be
literature because Theodore Roosevelt figures as
a character, there's an Alfred Stieglitz photograph
on the cover and it's over 400 pages long.) Pears,
as it happens, is no Caleb Carr. He's much more
boring than that.
An Instance of the Fingerpost is a
Rashomon-like tale that deconstructs a murder
in 1660s Oxford and the trial that leads a young
woman to be hanged for a crime she didn't
commit. (Or did she?) Every section is narrated
by a different character -- although each tends to
sound much the same as those that came before
-- and each narrator reevaluates the version of
events you've just read, giving his spin on what is
true, each assuring you that he alone is telling you
the truth. The problem is that you're getting
multiple versions of a story that Pears hasn't
convinced you to care about in the first place.
The narrators are a motley collection of pompous
gasbags, and Pears' approach is to present each
rambling section as if we've just stumbled on
some actual 16th century historical documents --
every word is supposedly both fascinating and
Pears may be a better writer than Carr, but he's
sanctimonious where Carr tends to be overly
manipulative. The point of his novel seems best
summed up when one of the ponderous speakers
tells us, "We are all capable of the most
monstrous evil when convinced we are right, and
it was an age when the madness of conviction
held all tightly in its grasp." This is a noble
sentiment, to be sure, but after a century of
Stalin, Hitler and Mao, it's not particularly
revelatory. And when a book is as long as this
one (691 pages) and the "thriller" hook is this
uncompelling, you might find yourself losing
patience faster than you can say
The Name of
the Rose. -- Salon
A near-perfect example of the genre. --
The New York Times Book Review
A historical mystery novel of very considerable philosophical, even theological, interest.... A first rate instance of this genre.
Gripping...an entertaining tour de force.
A whopping good read.
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 culprit...an erudite and entertaining tour de force.People
Successful literary thrillers in the mold of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose are the stuff of a publisher's dreams, and in Pears' novel they may have found a near-perfect example of the genre...Pears, with a painstaking, almost forensic attention to detail, constructs his world like a master painter...
New York Times Book Review
The Philadelphia Inquirer
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Fascinating...quite extraordinary...elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Now in trade, the New York Times bestseller that "may well be the best 'historical mystery' ever written.
This massive, delightfully titled literary thriller (it's a quote from Sir Francis Bacon) is the kind of gamble it's great to see a publisher taking in these often timid times. The English author, responsible so far for a series of conventional mysteries, has gone back to 17th-century Oxford for an absorbing, macabre tale of murder, politics, faith and betrayal. Featured in more than incidental roles are such real-life characters as John Locke, Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, King Charles II and the Earl of Clarendon. The murder by poisoning of Robert Grove, a Fellow of New College, and the subsequent trial and execution for the crime of Sarah Blundy, daughter of a freethinking early Socialist and anti-Royalist, is the heart of the action, which is related in four separate first-person accounts, each the length of a short novel. There is Marco da Cola, a good-hearted Venetian visitor whose irritable reflections on the English are witty and betray a perfect period ear; Jack Prestcott, a fiery young lawyer devoted to proving that his father, disgraced as a traitor, was himself betrayed; John Wallis, priest, mathematician and cryptographer of genius (also a real character), whose coldly cynical schemes set off a series of dazzlingly complex political maneuvers; and bookish scholar Anthony Wood, a background figure to the rest, but whose consuming love for Sarah makes him ultimately the central actor in the drama. Pears' grasp of the thought of the time, with its scientific zeal curbed always by what seems now like excess religiosity, its ferocious plotting and counterplotting, its struggles for power and position, is sure. Though there are many digressions, most are fascinating, and the book boasts an overall narrative momentum that carries even an ill-informed contemporary reader along.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
England of the 1660s was full of political and intellectual turmoil, speculation, and experimentation, not to mention a cast of colorful and controversial characters. It is firmly within this maelstrom that Pears (
The Last Judgment) has set this massive historical whodunit. A fellow of New College, Oxford, is found dead of arsenic poisoning (from a fancy carafe of brandy), and a young woman of the evening is accused, sentenced, and hanged for his murder. Case seemingly closed. But no, four very different versions of what really happened to the late Professor Grange related by four eyewitnesses to the crime weave a convoluted fabric of religious, scientific, and political intrigue. Basing his novel loosely upon an actual case from the period, Pears pits the key minds of the day -- Boyle, Locke, Wren and others against one another as each takes a shot at gaining from the event. Strange bedfellows indeed. Followers of Brother Cadfael and the works of Anne Perry and Umberto Eco will revel in this smartly paced, rather tongue-in-cheek tour de force. -- Susan Gene Clifford, Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, California
May well be the best 'historical mystery' ever written.
Utterly mesmerizing....Don't miss it.
Washington Post Book World
Fascinating...elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art.