An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”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.”
--Francis Bacon, Novum Organum Scientarum, Section XXXVI, Aphorism XXI
Oliver Cromwell, not really relevant to this book except for the destabilized government he left after his death.
It is the 1660s 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. Regardless, Cromwell’s death left a power vacuum that was proving difficult to fill. It is easy to confuse Oliver Cromwell with Thomas Cromwell as both did rise to great heights of power. Oliver is a descendant of Thomas’s older sister. 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 1649. Charles Junior was technically back in charge, but his powers had been severely curtailed. He wasn’t that worried about the extent of his power as he was more concerned about fornicating, gambling, and having the best possible time that English peasant taxes could buy.
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. Don’t worry these are not rehashing of the same information over and over again. 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. Da Cola meets Sarah Blundy when he offers to help heal her mother’s broken leg. 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 was playing a game with us all, and was confident of his success, and he was now underestimating his audience as I had underestimated him. 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.” John Wallis
John Wallis, a very serious man who has trained himself to discover conspiracies.
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. I’m taking him out of order simply because he had such a juicy assessment of da Cola. He is a Christian man and invests his money accordingly.
”I had placed to advantage some small part of my surplus funds in the East Indies, and also with a gentleman who captured Africans for the Americas. 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.”
Well he was against slavery, but if the crusty bastard who captains the vessel is willing to hold prayer meetings with them all across the ocean than he was in. 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. For instance, he knows more about the downfall of Jack Prestcott’s father than what he is willing to share. Because of the intersection of characters Prestcott’s obsession with discovering the truth about his father gets wrapped up in the investigations of Grove’s murderer.
”Tully says true, a dux quidem immortalibusquae potest homini major esse poena furore atque dementia, what greater punishment can the gods inflict upon a man that madness?
Jack is the second narrator. He is convinced that Sarah Blundy is a witch. After he raped her, he did have to rough her up as the silly bitch wouldn’t just lay there and take it like the wanton slut he assumed her to be, he was convinced she put a curse on him.
”You may have been born a gentleman; that is your misfortune. 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.”
“How do you know?”
“I see your soul,” She said, her voice suddenly dropping to a whisper which chilled my blood. “I know what it is and what is its shape. I can feel it hiss in the night and taste its coldness in the day. I hear it burning, and I touch its hate.”
As much as I wish that Sarah had been capable of putting a curse on Jack it simply wasn’t the case. His own mind put a curse on him. He was sure she was his enemy, why wouldn’t he? 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. Grove.
The fourth narrator is Anthony Wood, an antiquary and historian, best known for his diaries that were published long after his death. He gets Sarah a job with his parents and also recommended her for the job at Grove’s. 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.
”I sinned against the law, against God’s word reported, I abused my family and exposed them even more to risk of public shame, I again risked permanent exclusion from those rooms and books which were my delight and my whole occupation; yet in all the years that have passed since I have regretted only one thing: that it was but a passing moment, never repeated, for I have never been closer to God, nor felt his love and goodness more.”
An engraving of Anthony Wood.
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 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. Highly Recommended!
”I have been spared riches and fame and power and position, just as His goodness has saved me from poverty and great illness.” Anthony Wood
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