Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears is primarily known as a writer of genre mysteries about the art world. While I love a good mystery, I am not a big fan of genre mysteries which often resemble puzzles moreso than well-rounded novels. Their pattern tends to contain three parts: crime is committed, investigator investigates crime, crime is solved. Oh, sure, there is often seasoning around the crime puzzle, including characterization (Walter Mosley, Ross McDonald) and ambiance (Ellis Peters), but the puzzle is still so dominant I bore easily of the pattern.

Instead I prefer mysteries which either don’t have a crime or don’t have an investigator, but rather pose a situation which the reader is anxious to unravel as part of a complete plot. My favorite mystery is Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time in which a bedridden police detective undertakes historical research to determine if Richard III of England was actually the monster Shakespeare portrayed him as. Sure it is a mystery, but it consists of a lot more than crime–investigation– denouement.

All of which brings me to Iain Pear’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, one of two recent Pear novels which are as far from genre mysteries as possible because the mysteries are only small aspects of a much larger canvas.

The basic premise of the first 200 page section is that during the late 1600s a young Italian scholar named Marco da Cola travels to England during its post-Civil War Restoration to try to recover his father’s business interests which were stolen by an associate. While there, da Cola resides in Oxford where he pursues his medical research into blood circulation under the sponsorship of chemist Robert Boyle, with associates including fellow doctor John Locke who would become famous years later as a leading philosopher.

While at Oxford da Cola finds himself immersed in the typical arguments of that era such as Protestantism vs. Catholicism and ancient medical knowledge (based on Aristotle and Hippocrates) vs. modern scientific methods (as proposed by René Descartes and Francis Bacon). The first quarter of the book contains several philosophical discussions which were fascinating reading and quite in keeping with the tenor of those late Renaissance times.

Da Cola also becomes involved in the investigation of a murder, the leading suspect being a young girl named Sarah Blundy whose mother is dying and whom da Cola tries to save through the unproven and radical method of blood transfusions. As events unfold we are treated to a believable look at 17th century Restoration England, including life in a college town, a murder trial and subsequent hanging, and accepted medical practices as da Cola and an associate undergo a brief tour of the countryside where they treat patients as traveling physicians.

And all of this occupies only the first quarter of the book! Each subsequent section of the book is a 150-200 page narration by a different person who was a supporting character in da Cola’s narration. People who would otherwise be mere spear-carriers become fully-rounded people themselves. This is an aspect which most novels do not have: after we form impressions of those people based on their minor participation in da Cola’s narration, we are then introduced to them in depth, as well as seeing their own impressions of da Cola and the other narrators.

While each subsequent narrator’s life overlaps da Cola’s story, none are limited to it, so we benefit from three aspects of the four-part story:

1. each character has his own life and attitudes, giving us the chance to learn more about the historical period through the actions of four very different narrators in turn

2. the overlapping portion of the narratives enables us to see both the events of the main storyline and the large cast of characters from several differing viewpoints

3. we also receive totally different perspectives on the murder by each observer who has his own theories supported by clues as to the identity of the murderer

The second narrator is Jack Prescott whom we encounter during da Cola’s narration as the son of a notorious traitor who is himself imprisoned for attacking a reputable citizen. Prescott’s narration describes his attempt to restore the reputation of his father whom he feels was framed for political purposes. Perhaps the most fascinating portion of this narrative is Prescott’s dealings with Sarah Blundy whom he considers a young witch. Where in da Cola’s narration she was merely a headstrong girl, in the second she is viewed as an evil pawn of the devil. So which viewpoint do we readers believe? That’s part of the fascination of the novel, since both views are colored by the attitudes of the narrators, so while there is evidence for both narrators being mistaken, there is no definitive proof either is totally correct.

The third portion is narrated by mathematician John Wallis who is also a cryptographer for the Restoration government. This is the least interesting of the four sections because Wallis is so fanatical in his religious beliefs and so single-minded in his actions that his entire narration is an attempt to find evidence for his preconceived views, no matter how spurious some of those views and much of the evidence is. Both da Cola and Prescott had flaws–some considerable ones in the latter case–but only Wallis’ narration is totally colored by his flaws, so we see little of the depth of the man himself, and view none of the other characters with the shades of gray that both de Cola’s and Prescott’s narratives provide.

So where Wallis’ views of the events differs considerably with that of the other narrators, it is too easy to dismiss his as the rantings of a fanatic rather than plausible alternate views.

The fourth portion is the most interesting for several reasons. The narrator is Anthony Wood, a historian who has no private agenda compromising his narration, but rather is totally devoted to facts and uncovering the truth. Not that he is merely a passive bystander, for he is intimately involved in the affairs of several of the other leading characters, even so far as becoming the lover of Sarah Blundy. It is through Wood that we learn some of the flaws in the previous narrations, as well as how in some instances the conflicting evidence of the first three narrators actually mesh. And we learn many of the unanswered questions in the book, including the true explanation behind the political dealings which so obsessed both Prestcott and Wallis and led directly to the hanging of Sarah Blundy.

Overall I found An Instance of the Fingerpost a wonderful book, from its intricate plot which unwound slowly in an absorbing and almost circular manner, to its well-rounded and intriguing cast of characters, to Pears’ writing itself. While not beautiful writing per se, it was rich and deep, with every sentence adding to the depth of Restoration England. Gradually I felt drawn into the world and its inhabitants and truly understood their attitudes and beliefs. This is one of the finest books I’ve read in recent years and is very highly recommended.


  • I came across this blog while seaching out the charactes in the novel to see which were fictional and which were historical. I agree that it is one of the most engaging books I have read in a while, and most interesting coming after reading ThE English Civil War by Diane Purkess. I am glad I didn't live in the 17th century. Thank you for an excellent analysis of the book. I too loved Josephine Tey's daughter of Time
    Elinor Benjamin,
    Nova Scotia

    By Blogger Elinor B, At 6:54 AM  

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