An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears

Summary:

This is a historical murder mystery novel, set in the Oxford England of the middle 17th Century, just after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne.

The mystery plays out from four different narrative viewpoints, each narrator having their own chapter. The genesis is the murder of an Oxford Don, Dr Grove, in highly suspicious circumstances. His servant Sarah Blundy becomes the focus of the inquiry, and in the re-tellings she becomes quite an unusual character. The narrators (all men, and each are deeply and genuinely religious) are from differing backgrounds, and nationalities. The environment is still a troubled one, where the wrong word in the wrong ear can lead to imprisonment and/or death. Tensions between Royalists and Parliamentarians have not gone away even after the death of Cromwell, and secrets are the currency of the day.

It is also a time of burgeoning scientific endeavour, when some of the greatest minds that ever were are now living. Everything is on the table, as it were, though only a very few “natural scientists” are brave/reckless enough to ignore the dead hand of religion, which still holds a powerful sway in the land. As a reader, you must also make allowances for the high level of superstition which permeates all levels of society.

Each narrator believes in their own truth, and is so compelling in their story that you disbelieve the other versions. This all leads to the “Instance of the Fingerpost”, which means all crucial evidence points in only one direction for the answer. The phrase comes from Francis Bacon.

Main Characters:

Marco da Cola: An Venetian businessman, sent to Oxford by his father to investigate the finances of his business interest there. His contact leaves him penniless, and almost friendless. However, he does show remarkable resilience, and builds up contacts enabling him to survive.

Jack Prescott: Son of a disgraced Royalist who lost his fortune, he is obsessed with restoring his father’s good name and family fortunes. Arrogant and supercilious, he is a grasping, desperate individual who will do anything to get what he wants. Anything.

John Wallis: Respected Oxford Don, he worked for both sides during and after the Civil War, but has no problem reconciling himself to that. A gifted mathematician, his speciality is breaking secret codes.

Anthony Wood: A shy and retiring historian, he seems to have less of an axe to grind than the others, and in particular develops a deep fondness for Sarah Blundy.

Minor Characters:

Sarah Blundy: She is the house servant of the murdered Dr Grove. She is devoted to her aged and ailing mother, and has an almost mystical allure that casts a spell over most men she meets. We never hear from her directly, and see different sides of her depending on the narrator.

What I Liked:

  • The superb handling of the individual stories, and crystallising how difficult it is for people seeing the same thing, reporting it in the same way.
  • The writing is powerfully descriptive, and you become immersed in this 17th C world.
  • How the author recreates the medieval society on the verge of becoming modern, and the tensions between two diametrically opposed views of the world.
  • The complexity of the story. There are so many layers to it – you won’t pick up on all the clues first time round.
  • Sarah Blundy – you have to feel for her, and how her station in life at that time made her “disposable”, and a third-class citizen. Superb writing.

What I Didn’t like:

  • It is a long book, and sometimes it feels there is a lot of repetition, and narrative that is not needed (e.g. around social manners, etc.).

Overall:

This book took a long time to read, and keeping track of myriad characters through four different viewpoints is a challenge. It is excellently researched, but as noted above there seems to be a lot of superfluity. It would be a good book to have for a long journey, but I think it is not for everyone.

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