An 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.