Riverhead Books. The author, a British journalist and the author of six previous detective stories, 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. These range from the obese and greedy Earl of Clarendon, prime minister to the restored monarch, Charles II, to the Oxford apothecary who was landlord to the chemist Robert Boyle. Pears then throws in a few entirely fictitious people, including two of his four narrators. But whether entirely or only partly imagined, all of the members of this large and unruly cast are finely individualized, craggily differentiated characters, almost biblical in their moral and intellectual variety. Cola is a kind of dilettante physician who soon finds himself in Oxford keeping company with the likes of Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, and Richard Lower, a pioneering doctor who made early experiments in blood transfusion.
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Start your review of An Instance of the Fingerpost Write a review Shelves: historical-fiction When in a Search of any Nature the Understanding stands suspended, then Instances of the Fingerpost shew the true and inviolable Way in which the Question is to be decided.
These Instances afford great Light, so that the Course of the Investigation will sometimes be terminated by them. Sometimes, indeed, these Instances are found amongst that Evidence already set down. It is the s and England is still in turmoil after the death of Oliver Cromwell. He unnaturally died of natural causes though he was later dug up, hung in chains, and ceremoniously beheaded.
Torturing a corpse seems like an odd thing to do. It is as if they believed they could torment the departed soul with what they do with the empty shell.
It is easy to confuse Oliver Cromwell with Thomas Cromwell as both did rise to great heights of power. Thomas worked for Henry the VIII and did lose his head not unusual for anyone who worked closely with the colossally paranoid King. Charles II has been allowed to return to the throne taken from his father Charles I was beheaded, while alive, not another bit of corpse desecration in Charles Junior was technically back in charge, but his powers had been severely curtailed.
Given what happened to his father and the life he had on the run, fearing assassination, maybe it makes sense that Charles II devoted his life to the pursuit of pleasure. But that is all on the periphery of our story, merely serving as a backdrop for a good old fashioned English murder mystery. The book is split into four parts each section told by a different narrator each with their own unique view of events.
New, critical information is released with each changing perspective. The victim is Dr. Robert Grove, an amateur astrologer of New College, Oxford. Like many men, then and now, he liked a glass of alcoholic liquor at the end of the day to calm his frazzled nerves and hopefully give him a gentle push off into the land of Morpheus. Unfortunately with the brandy was a tincture of arsenic that seized his heart and left him a cooling, yet still flatulent, corpse with a host of suspects.
Our first narrator is Marco da Cola, a rather flamboyantly dressed young man from Venice who is in London on business for his father. He is having pecuniary difficulties and needs sources of ready cash. He turns his hand to being a physician, untrained, but it seems that in this time period men with a degree in most anything would occasionally turn their hand to doctoring. The descriptions of the superstitions that were still dictating prescribed treatment by a physician of this time period made it very clear that one had to be very desperate to seek care at all.
He needs a client even if it is unlikely that Sarah can pay his fee with hard coin. There is something, though, not quite right about Marco da Cola. He did not realize that I saw, that instant, into his soul and perceived the devilish intent that lay hidden there, coiled and waiting to unleashed when all around had been lulled into thinking him a fool. What is it with da Cola being do damned friendly as well! Wallis, Professor of Geometry at Oxford and the greatest English mathematician before Newton was also a cryptographer for parliament.
Because he was so immersed in the intrigues of court he caught some of the paranoia that was part and parcel of a king and his handlers that felt anything but in control. He sees grand conspiracies where maybe the odd behavior of some people has to do with something altogether different than plotting the downfall of the government. He is our third narrator. He is a Christian man and invests his money accordingly. This latter was by far the finest investment I ever made, the more so because the captain of the vessel assured me the slaves were instructed vigorously in the virtues of Christianity on their voyage across the ocean and thus had their souls saved at the same time as they produced valuable labor for others.
It is so nice to turn a healthy profit and save souls at the same time. We are supposed to believe this investment is about souls and not about gold.
Wallis is an expert in cyphers, certainly one of the best minds for puzzles living in this time period. In fact, he periodically receives offers to work for other governments, but he is as fervently patriotic for England as he is about saving the souls of black slaves. Jack is the second narrator. He is convinced that Sarah Blundy is a witch. But your actions are those of one far lower than any man I have ever known. You violated me, although I gave you no cause to do so.
You then spread foul and malicious rumors about me, so I am dismissed from my place, and jeered at in the streets, and called whore. You have taken my good name, and all you offer in return is your apology, said with no meaning and less sincerity. If you felt it in your soul, I could accept easily, but you do not. I can feel it hiss in the night and taste its coldness in the day.
I hear it burning, and I touch its hate. His own mind put a curse on him. He certainly gave her just cause. He turns out to be much more than a rapist, but also a liar and a manufacturer of evidence. Sarah, because she had worked for Dr. Grove, and was known as a willful woman, meaning she was likely to defend herself verbally if assaulted verbally, is the most convenient number one suspect in the poisoning of the Dr.
The fourth narrator is Anthony Wood, an antiquary and historian, best known for his diaries that were published long after his death. He carries a torch for Sarah. Despite the risks, he has a night of passion with her that goes beyond lust and reaches the first hills and dales of love.
You will like Anthony Wood. He is probably the only man in this novel lacking in guile. A man who gives loyalty and understands the true responsibility of the word, not just when it is convenient, but from the first breath as he gives it to the last breath as he expires. Iain Pears Iain Pears has built this four layered cake of a novel, each layer is sprinkled with truth, but lies and half truths are hidden in the batter and the frosting.
The reader is forced to pay attention to each bite, each paragraph, each lick, each word as the twists and turns of this plot are patiently revealed. Most of what the narrators reveal to us they believe to be true, but they are all guilty of their own suppositions colored by their own prejudices. The reader feels like an investigator, barraged with different views, conflicting stories, and it is only in the final moments of the book that most of us will discover that we were wrong.
AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST
Reading Guide Questions Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers! 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. 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? 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.
An Instance of the Fingerpost
Synopsis[ edit ] A murder in 17th-century Oxford is related from the contradictory points of view of four of the characters, all of them unreliable narrators. The setting of the novel is , just after the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War , when the authority of King Charles II is not yet settled, and conspiracies abound. Most of the characters are historical figures. Two of the narrators are the mathematician John Wallis and the historian Anthony Wood.
Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost
Start your review of An Instance of the Fingerpost Write a review Shelves: historical-fiction When in a Search of any Nature the Understanding stands suspended, then Instances of the Fingerpost shew the true and inviolable Way in which the Question is to be decided. These Instances afford great Light, so that the Course of the Investigation will sometimes be terminated by them. Sometimes, indeed, these Instances are found amongst that Evidence already set down. It is the s and England is still in turmoil after the death of Oliver Cromwell. He unnaturally died of natural causes though he was later dug up, hung in chains, and ceremoniously beheaded.