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[427] Stone’s Fall – Iain Pears

” Scandal has killed as many people as knives and bullets. ” (Part I 17:584)

Stone’s Fall is incredibly complex, so convoluted that it keeps you guessing what the truth is until absolutely the very end. The mysteries of the story are artfully unfolded in an intricate plotline spanning three times period. A great deal is going on in this heft of a book that broaches espionage, international banking and finance, military arms production, and anarchist insurrection. Until the final narrative, all that is going on, which involves a dozen of characters, some of whom are not what they seem to be, is elusive.

Because, squalid little reporter with an eye for a story that I am, I still cannot rid myself of the idea that your husband did not fall. I have heard he had terrible fear of heights. (Part I 10:71)

Stone’s Fall opens in London in 1953 where a retired crime reporter, Matthew Braddock recalls London in 1909 during the time he was hired to investigate the whereabouts of an heir to John Stone, a major player in global finance and weapon production. The more Braddock probes into Stone’s affairs the more confused he becomes. Stone’s widow, Lady Ravenscliff, offers Braddock a fortune too pry into her husband’s personal affairs that might solve the mystery of his death. Was Stone’s death—falling out of the window—accidental or a result of foul play? Why did he leave a stupendous bequest to a child whom, he states in his will, he ever acknowledged? Even after twenty years of marriage, she and John were very much in love and that he had not been in the habit of keeping secrets from her. She needs answer, and craves for the peace of mind. The identity of the heir would appease all her disquiet.

I felt as though I was talking to an actress who was playing several roles at the same time, all from different plays. (Part I 21:170)

Indeed, as in Part II, Henry Cort the spy reveals that Elizabeth , who became Lady Ravenscliff, is not what she appears to be. She is neither from a pedigree of gentility nor a well-educated woman. Through this shadowy figure in Cort one sees how the world is convertible to money, power, and influence. Elizabeth had certainly been caught in the tide and the years had toughened her. War and peace are also decided by the movement of capital—and there is a price for every piece of intelligence. The core of Cort’s narrative is the supercilious British Empire, which vows to preserve its reign of power over the world, and to protect her from sabotage from countries both resentful and envious of its wealth and vastness. Taking advantage of the empire’s obsession Stone exercises manipulation to make a fortune in his arms production. Before her marriage, Elizabeth was a whore-spy, passing on pillow talk for whatever price she could get.

I like making people do things they do not wish to do, I like discovering things I am not meant to know. I think I like taking bad actions and turning them to good ends. It is so often the reverse. But I can take lies and betrayal and turn them into patriotism. (Part II 18:402)

I shook my head and frowned, thinking furiously. A whole host of little details, previously unconnected, seemingly random, seeming to be sticking themselves together into new and troubling patterns. And then, there it was. Undeniable. (Part II 21:415)

While Henry Cort’s narrative stuns me for its prescience and relevance about our current financial crises and exposes the greed of businessmen, it’s John Stone’s story that finally reveals the secret that ultimately, in a very fortuitous manner, leads to his death. Stone’s Fall is very typical of Iain Pears as the many actions move in different directions, dragging readers along peeking through curtains. At one point I almost lose touch of the central mystery, which, to a large extent, hinges on the intricate and arcane details of banking, politics, and espionage, which are not compelling to all readers. But at the end the many subplots and seemingly unconnected pieces all fall into place and drive the book to a poignant and shocking conclusion. It’s a novel of manipulation, secrecy, and love. In the end, it makes me wonder what a man is truly revered for: his achievements or his virtue?

593 pp. 1st U.S. Ed/Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[311] An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears

” Two men, it seems, can see the same event, yet both remember it falsely. How, he went on, will we ever reach certainty on anything, even when of good will? . . . But how can I tell which assertion to believe, and which to reject? ” [Part 4:1]

Nothing is ever as it seems in An Instance of the Fingerpost. In using four different (unreliable) narrators, Iain Pears weaves webs of deception and misapprehension, using omission and outright lies to confuse the truth. Each of the four accounts—a Venetian physician, a traitorous soldier’s son, a mathematician, and a historian—has distinct motive and reason that render the self-contained (and self-conscious) account less objective and misleading.

In 1663, England is wrecked with intrigue and civil strife. The king is nearly toppled from his throne. Thousands of dissenters are locked in the jail. Rumors of war across the North Sea are boiling. It’s a time when everyone is a fool, a liar, a murderer, a cheat, or a traitor. All men are subjects to be twisted to serve their ends. These secretive and frightening events form the theater set for the death of Dr. Robert Grove, an Oxford don found dead in his rooms at New College. It is discovered that arsenic added to a bottle of brandy has killed the prelate. Following the murder emerges a scandal in which Dr. Grove is alleged to fornicate with his house servant, Sarah Blundy, who has admitted to the crime.

A few people continued to fight against Cromwell’s tyranny, but only because they thought it right to do so, not because there was any anticipation of success. The number of people sick of despotism increased year by year, but they were too cowed to act without a lead. [Part 2:4]

As the novel plunges into labyrinth of events and findings recalled by each narrator, it is clear that the first three narratives present only a simulacrum of verity. As much as the first account is true, the Venetian physician is not what he appears to be. That he attends to Sarah’s sick mother serves as a disguise that will gain access to the house for some secret papers concerning the state. Jack Prestcott is on a mission to revenge on the death of his father, James Prestcott, a former member of Sealed Knot who has been betrayed. Convinced that John Thurloe (Cromwell’s secretary of state) has hidden the identity of the real traitor at the expense of his father’s fall, Jack pursues Dr. John Wallis, a mathematician who is expertise in decoding cipher, whom he believes is in possession of the coded documents used to incriminate Sir James Prestcott. But Wallis himself lives a life that calls for discretion and he attributes mendacious motives to the Venetian purely out of personal reason.

But these are just mere contour of the truth, which nobody can even fathom.

Of course, the package was that bundle of documents, which Blundy had shown to Sir James Prestcott, and which Thurloe held to be so dangerous he searched for years to recover it. [Part 4:3]

An Instance of the Fingerpost is an intellectual mystery that revolves around the contention between the Commonwealth and the Royalists in 17th century England. Thrown in the plot are grand events of history, the birth of modern science, machinations of politics, interference of religions, and human tragedies. Twists and reversals are the result of countless deeds and decisions, secretly taken and only half known, let alone understood, that slowly accumulate over the years to produce the death of an innocent girl. The many plots and counter-plots, deception and double-dealing are reasons that the book should not be rushed, but savored.

735 pp. Pocket paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]