March 1998

An Instance of the Fingerpost

By Iain Pears
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Murder, mayhem, lust, and betrayal are rife among Oxford's ivory towers in Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost. Set in the Restoration period, this masterfully crafted historical mystery is about how different people perceive and interpret a ghastly murder and its aftermath. As such, it is more of a literary exercise than a straight-forward mystery and one for which the diligent reader will be richly rewarded.

The murder of Robert Grove, fellow of New College, is recounted by four narrators, each with his own personal baggage and preconceptions about who perpetrated the crime. Marco da Cola, a foppish Venetian, is an expatriate in search of his father's debtors or so he professes. Jack Prescott is a paranoid schizophrenic bent on redressing his father's sullied name. The highly arrogant cryptographer, John Wallis, is on a similar quest to revenge the death of his companion. And the hermit-like Anthony Wood proffers his own account of the murder, all the while entranced by Sarah Blundy, a servant with strangely mystical qualities. Although she never narrates, Sarah is a ubiquitous presence, influencing and inciting each narrator with her stoic beauty, insolence and free-thinking notions.

Each narrator embodies Age-of-Enlightenment paradoxes and, to some degree, each is corrupted by prejudice and blinded by obsession. Emerging scientific theories and revolutionary insights clash with old-world superstitions. Characterizations are based on historical persons, and harrowing details (such as graphic scenes of medical experimentation) abound.

True to its title, the book itself is a fingerpost, playfully guiding the reader through philosophical conundrums concerning the nature of knowledge and truth while weaving an entertaining tale of gothic proportions. Among Oxford's dreaming spires, there lurks a brooding malevolence the perfect setting in which an aura of cloistered intrigue rings true. Epic-novel aficionados will not be disappointed.

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