An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

12142746An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a book I resisted reading for a while for the simple reason I thought it a tad too long. There were other books I wanted and needed to read, so it kept being moved to the bottom of a very big pile. Even owning a Kindle was not reason enough to embark on such a journey. Well, more fool me.

An Instance of the Fingerpost (which is taken from a larger quote by Francis Bacon) refers to the way in which a fingerpost points in only one direction and how, when presented with “facts” and “truths” in relation to a situation, humans tend to only see one solution/suspect. So it is with this simply marvellous tale of murder and intrigue set in 1663, during the reign of Charles II, who was restored to the throne on the back of the Interregnum after the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son, Richard, to hold power.

Set in Oxford, it basically tells the story about the murder of a university don, a Dr Grove, who appears to have been poisoned. Told in four parts from four different points of view (a Venetian medical student and traveler, Marco Da Cola; a passionate and angry young man, John Prescott who is trying desperately to prove his father isn’t the traitor to the crown he was believed to be; Dr Wallis, a stern and unbending cryptographer and, finally, Anthony Wood, an archivist and historian), the tale unfolds slowly, in detail, allowing time for the reader to understand not only the incredible narrative being told, but the person telling it. Rich in detail, philosophical insights and human observation, other characters become significant, such as the bold and assertive Sarah Blundy who earns the enmity and admiration of people in equal measure, and her injured mother, the so-called witch, Anne. Then, there are also the genuine historical figures who pepper the book such as the Earl of Clarendon, Cromwell’s former spymaster, John Thurloe, scientist Robert Boyle, architect Christopher Wren, Mr Lower, Bennett, the king, and other well-known names from a heady, culturally progressive and violent period.

When Dr Grove is found murdered, all sorts of reasons are given for his death and various suspects and their motives come to light, but without spoiling the story, it’s when someone the reader least suspects confesses, and shocking events follow, that the narrative (and the reader’s heart) quickens.

But Grove’s murder is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Bubbling away beneath the brutal death of this pompous man are plots and secrets aplenty as well as those who fear what the discovery of these might do to a kingdom fractured by religion, potential wars and the lascivious desires of a once deprived and exiled king.

Hidden documents, unfair accusations, half-truths, outright lies, deceptions, decoys, murder and betrayal all feature in this incredibly plotted, wonderfully detailed book that brings an era of suspicion, intrigue, distrust but also wonder to life. The accuracy of the portrayals of real and fictitious figures (though even the fictitious ones are based on real people and events) is breath-taking. I was filled with admiration and so much respect (as well as a healthy does of lexical envy) for Pears who has written a tour de force with this book. When I finally finished, I was tempted to start again so as to really appreciate the way traps were laid, truths and evasions set into place before the big and ultimate reveal.

What a magnificent tome this is. I highly recommend it for lovers of history, mystery and just damn fine writing and stories.

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Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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The King’s Evil by Edward Marston

18333501-1The King’s Evil is the first in a series by Edward Marston (who wrote the marvellous Nicholas Bracewell series set in Elizabethan England) set during the Restoration and the early years of Charles II’s reign. The year is 1666, immediately after the Great Fire has decimated London and rebuilding is commencing. The book introduces the reader to young and aspiring architect Christopher Redmayne, while the series follows his fortunes and misfortunes. Though blessed with great talent, Redmayne’s greatest misfortune appears to be his brother, Henry, a Cavalier reprobate. He’s also lumbered with a God-fearing Dean for a father, a man Henry at least, fears more than the Lord Himself.

When thieves are caught ransacking materials from a house Redmayne has been commissioned to build, he’s thrown into the company of Jonathan Bale, a Puritan constable who has no time for the likes of Redmayne, let alone his brother. Forced to work together, Redmayne and Bale must solve, not only the mystery of the thieves, but also find who’s responsible for murdering the owner of the house Redmayne is building, the rather obnoxious, Sir Ambrose.

Forced to venture into houses of ill-repute – brothels and gaming – wander the crowded, dirty and dangerous streets, endure listening to lies and evasions, and encounter all types of citizens from the highest to the lowest, a grudging respect grows between Bale and Redmayne who find that, despite their wishes, if they want to bring this investigation to a close, two heads are better than one, particularly if they want to remain intact.

Well-written, Marston has a flair for capturing the period and this book is no exception. While Redmayne and Bale are well drawn, the brother, Henry tends to verge on caricature and some of the dialogue lacks the bawdy joy of his earlier series and can be long-winded and forced. Nonetheless, it was a very enjoyable read and I immediately downloaded the next one in the series.

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Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

This long awaited sequel to the simply marvellous Restoration, picks up the story of the highly flawed and extremely personable, Robert Merivel, physician to King Charles II, only this time, it’s 25 years or thereabouts since we last met him.

18970894Well into his twilight years, Merivel, who in the first book enjoyed then lost the patronage of his king and went on a journey of self-discovery which saw him survive the Plague, the Great Fire and life in metal asylum run by a kind group of Quakers, is this time far more settled. His beloved daughter is now a woman; he has his well-managed estate to run and his ageing servants to consider and a life well-lived to reflect upon. Ever trying to find meaning in his life, Merivel, like the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, keeps a record of his daily activities, thoughts, mishaps, sexual encounters and triumphs, sparing the reader nothing. This is part of the joy of the man and the book.

Emulating the erratic syntax of the era, in that Tremain capitalises words mid-sentence, she also manages to plunge the reader into this wonderfully decadent and politically fraught time – stylistically, but also ideologically and emotionally. Whether it’s food, fashion, habits, religion, medical procedures or class structure, she recreates the late 1600s and the turmoil of monarchy and government as well as international relations and places masterfully.

Merivel may be older, but he doesn’t feel wiser. A sense that life is slipping him by pervades and so he makes the decision to travel to the court of Louis XIV, the King’s cousin, and see the great Versailles for himself. Always afraid of what he might be missing out on, Merivel embarks on a number of other adventures, and makes some rather interesting and, on reflection poor choices, in this book. In doing so, he learns his place in the greater world and the smaller one that is his estate and family. He discovers the real meaning of love and friendship and what’s important in life. The reader champions him on this erratic journey and our affection for this volatile but kind and very philosophical man deepens.

Including Merivel, a fictional character in real historical events and having him encounter actual personages of the time imbue the book with such immediacy and Merivel himself more relevance than he already has. He becomes our touchstone for both the macrocosmic historic events and the microcosmic ones we can all identify with.

As much as it evokes the period so beautifully, the novel is also contemporary in that the questions it poses about ageing and life are timeless.

Superbly written, with humour, pathos and such understanding, this is a gorgeous book and a fitting conclusion to Merivel’s marvellous life.

 

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The Gilded Lily by Deborah Swift

30338626This is the companion book to Deborah Swift’s, The Lady’s Slipper and can be read after it or as a stand-alone. Set in a wonderfully realised Restoration London in 1661, it tells the story of two sisters, Ella and Sadie Appleby, who flee their small village after the suspicious death of Ella’s employer and go to London to seek work, a new life and as a way of ridding themselves of the property they’ve stolen from Ella’s dead employee. After all, what good would it serve him?

But life in London is cruel and unforgiving. While the girls find employment, their mistress is a tyrant, and Sadie’s facial deformity makes her both stand out a target for pitiless jests and attention. Unhappy with their lot, when Ella is invited by the wealthy business dealer, Jay Whitgift to front a new venture he’s devised, it seems her luck has changed… But Whitgift is not the gentleman Ella thinks he is. Worse, her dead employee’s twin is determined to bring his brother’s killer or killers to justice, even if it means following the two young sisters to London and tracking them down himself. Such a thing shouldn’t be too hard, not when one has a red birthmark across her face…

Bringing history and cluttered, dirty London to life, Swift has written a wonderful story of loyalty, love, sisterhood, family, treachery and hope. The historical details are seamlessly woven into the sisters’ story and the setting is realistically and marvellously drawn. Carefully plotted, filled with rich characters that have their flaws and strengths, this book is hard to put down. It’s a treat for those who love historical fiction or simply a damn fine story.

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