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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The Chosen by Kristina Ohlsson

25925079Still on my Nordic Noir bend, a friend recommended this author, Kristina Ohlsson, to me and, after searching through her titles (and being impressed by the sterling reviews her work is receiving), I chose The Chosen. Just a few pages in, I was caught up in both the story and the quality of the writing. As the tale progressed, I found it more and more difficult to tear myself away, and I quickly understood that Ohlsson more than deserves those great reviews.

The Chosen opens on a freezing winter’s day, just a snowstorm wraps itself around the city of Stockholm. It’s early afternoon and children are preparing to head home when a pre-school teacher is shot and killed in front of parents and students at Jewish school. Before the police can even begin to understand the tragedy and cope with the fallout, two boys from the school go missing.

As the body count begins to mount and the clues don’t, there are nonetheless commonalities between the kidnappings and the deaths: the mysterious Paper Boy, who is both an urban myth told to frighten wayward Jewish children as well as the alter ego of a sadistic killer, and then there’s Israel.

Involving other agencies, harkening back to the past as well as to other countries and times, the lead investigators, Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht and their team have to use all available resources to uncover the truth and expose the killer before one of their own gets hurt.

Drawing on mythology and superstition and using flashbacks and prolepsis (that involve a violin – a potent signifier), the book keeps you guessing as to the outcome until the end. The interesting thing is, the reader is privy to the identity of the killer before the police, but it’s who the final victims are that keep you on the edge of your seat and feeling torn as you know catastrophe is about to unfold and there is no such thing as the lesser of two evils…

A clever, gripping book that explores families – personal and professional, communities, faith, loyalty, revenge, patriotism, choices, loss and consequences.

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Conspiracy by S.J. Parris

19613980The fifth book in the Giordano Bruno series, Conspiracy, has everything we’ve come to love and expect from these fabulous novels by S.J. Parris: an excellent hero, toxic politics, intelligencers trying to outwit, outlast and out survive each other and, of course, the continuous deadly and vexatious issue of the 1500s: religion.

Yet, what I love about this series also left me, in Conspiracy, a little bit irritated at times too. In that, a great deal of the plot was driven not by Bruno’s intellect and ability to read signs and people (as has happened in previous books), but by his propensity in this one to make critical errors and find himself in deep trouble and even outright danger. The good Dr Bruno kept repeating the same mistakes and trusting and/or putting his faith in those everyone except him knew he shouldn’t. Rather than solving dilemmas, he stumbled in and out of them – and then, lo and behold, did the same thing again! This became quite frustrating. However, in terms of the richness of the book and the pleasure gained from reading it, these are small criticisms.

The year is 1585 and Bruno is a reluctant returnee to Paris. The effete Valois, King Henry III is on the throne, his mother, Catherine di Medici rules from behind with an iron fist, controlling her son and his policies and all the while, the ambitious Guise family do what they can to promote rebellion and arouse dissatisfaction with the king and his court. In other words, France is not unlike the England Bruno left behind, something the presence of many English Catholic exiles and spies also makes apparent. Yet, Bruno is not pleased to be back.

Deciding he needs to make peace with Rome if he’s to have a future, Bruno seeks out a priest he knows (who also happens to be a member of the radical Catholic League) in order to beg him to facilitate the reconciliation process. When this priest is found brutally bashed and is only able to utter one last word, “Circe”, to his friend, Bruno, before he dies, suspicion falls on the Italian doctor and the Hugenots.

This being a Bruno story, more deaths follow and though he knows it puts him in danger, Bruno agrees to help the King and the Duke of Guise (who approach him independently and quite dramatically) to track down the murderer. But what if it’s those asking for his help who are guilty?

From dank and stinking prison cells to court masques, monasteries, libraries, boudoirs, the streets of Paris, the Seine, and hotel rooms, Bruno needs to pull out all stops – physical and mental – to solve these murders and before the killer or killers set their sights on him.

Written in its usual fine style, this is a solid addition to the series, even if Bruno’s silly decisions and the repetition of events and consequences did get a tad tiresome. The historical detail is superb and the book ended with a wonderful possibility that will no doubt lead our erstwhile philosopher down more fantastical and dangerous paths.

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The Final Sacrament by James Forrester

url-1The last book in the Clarenceux trilogy, The Final Sacrament by James Forrester, is quite a dark and grim tale as the beleaguered William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, has to make decisions regarding the document that was entrusted to him in a previous instalment of the series and which, if placed in the wrong hands, could bring down the throne and kingdom.

The Catholics want it for their purposes, as do Francis Walsingham and William Cecil – the Queen’s Privy Councillors, men who, supposedly, are on Clarenceux’s side. But as friends betray him and those set to guard him seem more intent on guarding something else, and his family is threatened, desperation grows. William Harley no longer knows whom he can trust.

Death and danger stalk his every move and when it enters his home, he has no choice but to take drastic measures.

This has been a good series. Written by Ian Mortimer, whose non-fiction books (The Time Traveller’s Guides to Medieval England and Elizabethan England and The Fears of Henry IV among others) I think are brilliant, his strength lies more in the realm of fact than fiction.

While this is an engaging tale in many regards, it does become convoluted in spots and sometimes a character’s motivation is questionable.

Overall, however, Forrester, as one would expect, evokes the period so well and doesn’t baulk from revealing the dark underbelly and cruelty of this period.

For anyone who likes a rollicking but bleak read.

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The Heretics by Rory Clements

imgres-8The fifth book in the John Shakespeare series by Rory Clements, The Heretics, is quite a dark tale full of idolatry, superstition, exploitation and the vileness to which people will stoop to control others. Set seven years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, it nonetheless opens as foreign galleons threaten the Cornwall coast (according to the excellent historical notes, this kind of things really happened after the Armada).

Enter, John Shakespeare stage right, who is asked to uncover whether this is a practice run or the beginnings of a new threat from the sea. Just as he sets his spy network in motion, one after the other, they’re found murdered. Dismayed and determined to track down the killer, John finds himself not only embroiled in finding the victims of exorcisms gone wrong, but driven north to visit the prison of the marshes, Wisbech Castle, and the priests incarcerated there.

In the meantime, Shakespeare’s children are under threat as is Boltfoot’s wife, Jane who has taken it upon herself to visit the highly sexed and unscrupulous, Dr Simon Forman.

From the fens to the playhouses of London and everything in between, John has his work cut out for him, especially when, as usual, those who should be working with him, level against him, making his job that much harder and his employer less sympathetic.

A bleak instalment that is still a great read, even if some of the conditions described and real characters from history and events explored are difficult for modern readers to stomach. Exploring issues of faith, exploitation, internment, war, torture, women, superstition, women and marriage, quite a few stones are overturned and then some. The power of Clements’ writing is in his ability to not only meld fact and fiction but in a way that is at once poetic and striking. He brings the era to rollicking life – in all its ugly glory – crafting a splendid novel in the process.

 

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