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An Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel by…
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An Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel (original 1997; edition 2000)

by Iain Pears

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
4,1431141,210 (3.94)1 / 238
Member:LisaCurcio
Title:An Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel
Authors:Iain Pears
Info:Riverhead Trade (2000), Paperback, 704 pages
Collections:Read, Fiction, Your library
Rating:
Tags:Historical fiction

Work details

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1997)

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    ehines: Both interesting contemporary books set amidst the scientific enlightenment, Pears is a bit more historical where Stephenson is more flashily contemporary, but fans of one certainly should look at the other.
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English (106)  French (3)  Spanish (2)  German (1)  Swedish (1)  Russian (1)  All languages (114)
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“It is cruel that we are granted the desire to know, but denied the time to do it properly. We all die frustrated; it is the greatest lesson we have to learn.”

The year is 1663 Oliver Cromwell is dead and the king has newly been restored to an uncertain throne. It is a time of witch hunts and conspiracies but it is also the dawn of the scientific Enlightenment.

A pretty obnoxious Oxford don has been murdered and an innocent young woman is arrested for his killing. Four very different voices tell the story from their own standpoint in separate testimonies. Each are in some way culpable in the events that follow. First is Marco da Cola, who portrays himself as a mere gentleman of Venice visiting England for the first time on family business. Next is Jack Prescott, a student at the university obsessed with clearing his father's name from a charge of treason. Third is Dr. Wallis, mathematician and code-breaker, a man for whom the whole world throbs with conspiracy and intrigue. Last is the historian Anthony Wood, a mousy and passionate man whose story provides the key with which the book's mysteries, so carefully established, are finally solved. Many of the more peripheral characters within are lifted from history and as such whose names will be familiar to the reader.

Pears has obviously steeped himself in the period, so that his characters, in their lives and confessions, embody its rich contradictions, its entwining of superstition with the spirit of new learning, of religion with politics, of politics with violence as such it all feels very authentic.

At this point I should confess that I am not a great reader of detective fiction but I am a fan of history in particular social history. However, the don's murder is largely peripheral to the over-riding theme of this novel. In fact the don was generally unliked and as such will not be missed. Rather it is a catalyst to a greater crime.

There are few women in this novel. One of them,Sarah Blundy, and her treatment by men, is the real centre of this tale. She is feisty and the book's most notable victim. Yet it is her humanity that provides the book's warmth.

My copy of this novel is just shy of 700 pages long and the plot is more tortoise than hare. The painstaking attention to detail sometimes stifles rather than aids the flow of it. On top of which at least two of the four narrators are men hard to like or care about. In fact it was not the final narrator began to tell his side of the story that I felt that it had really grabbed me and probably not until about the final 160 pages that I found myself being moved. In fact the mousiest narrator is in many respects the boldest. Don't get me wrong I found this a worthwhile read not least because even at the very end of it the reader is left unsure who committed the original murder. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Jul 13, 2016 |
Complicated and challenging, but intriguing. Told by four different narrators, it is the same story told from four different viewpoints. Marco deCola is a son of a merchant from Venice in England to see about his father's business (or is he). Prescott is a young man attempting to clear his father's name as a traitor to King Charles during the time of the Restoration. Wallis is a priest who is also an encoder who is suspicious of deCola and is struggling with the death of a young man who he loves and believes deCola killed. The final chapter is told by Wood, a man socially snubbed but who is astute about the affairs of others. The story involves murder, the Restoration of the monarchy, the early trials of blood transfusions, and religion.

This is not an easy read at 700+ pages, but one that was fascinating and weaves a very tight plot. Loved it. ( )
  maryreinert | Jun 27, 2016 |
Complex historical mystery, wayyy more of it was based on fact (or, more precisely, wayyy more of the characters were real-life people than I thought). Took a little patience getting through a part about three-quarters of the way through, when I thought I'd figured most of it out, but then it turned out I hadn't, so the last bit was very rewarding. Highly recommended for fans of [a:Umberto Eco|1730|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1217498277p2/1730.jpg]'s [b:The Name of the Rose: Including Postscript|119073|The Name of the Rose Including Postscript|Umberto Eco|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1275697083s/119073.jpg|3138328], as it's a similar kind of very thoughtful, intelligent, rather highbrow mystery. ( )
  BraveNewBks | Mar 10, 2016 |
What sticks in my mind about this book is being consumed with fury for 1/4th of it--and then having the following conclusion be the greatest revenge. A really excellent novel with some very unreliable narrators and detailed characterization. I was amazed at how everything fit together by the end. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
Well-written tour de force set in Restoration England--17th century.
Four "memoirs" written by four of the main characters. All are connected by the same figures and also by the murder of an Oxford don and the execution of a young woman. Each narration is given by a separate character: an Italian medical student; a young man attempting to restore his father's good name; a cryptographer; and an archivist/antiquarian. None of these people is completely reliable; each tells the story as he sees it, often concealing events or distorting or even lying. The first section lays out the story, especially investigation of the murder, then the others tell different points of view and emphasizes what seems important to the narrator. After the first section, the story sagged until half way through Part Three and from there on to the end, it was unputdownable. Clues appeared all through but only the sharpest reader would pick them up. Twists and turns in Part Four ["Instance of the fingerpost" = Reliable witness] were logical but incredible and amazing!

I was completely immersed in the England of that period and of Cromwellian England before it--politics and religious bigotry. Recommended. ( )
1 vote janerawoof | Feb 20, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Iain Pearsprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ambrosini, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Biličić, DamirTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Čhaturongkhawāni… Thanatwō̜nTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Engen, BodilTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gračanin, MartinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gurovoj, I.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jakovlev, BožicaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johansen, KnutTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Khup, NālanthāTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kim, Sŏk-hŭiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lindenburg, MiekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lundborg, GunillaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mader, FriedrichTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Máximo, Maria AliceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martoccia, MaríaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Petecka-Jurek, KatarzynaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Petersen, Arne HerløvTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Radevic-Stojiljkovic… BranislavaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sabljak, AnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sarotte, Georges-MichelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tutino, AlfredoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Verduin, VictorTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ṿais, BoʻazTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Walter, EdithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae.

(History is the witness of the times, the light of truth, the life of memory, the mistress of life.)
             Cicero, De Oratore
A Question of Precedence

There are idols which we call Idols of the Market. For Men associate by Discourse, and a false and improper Imposition of Words strangely possesses the Understanding, for Words absolutely force the Understanding, and put all Things into Confusion.
— Francis Bacon,
Novum Organum Scientarum, Section II,
Aphorism VI
An Instance of the Fingerpost

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
Dedication
To Ruth
First words
Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, wrongly, amongst my friends.
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Book description
We are in England in the 1660s. Charles II has been restored to the throne following years of civil war and Oliver Cromwell's short-lived republic. Oxford is the intellectual seat of the country, a place of great scientific, religious, and political ferment. A fellow of New College is found dead in suspicious circumstances. A young woman is accused of his murder. We hear the story of the death from four witnesses; an Italian physician intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood transfusion; the son of an alleged Royalist traitor; a master cryptographer who has worked for both Cromwell and the king; and a renowned Oxford antiquarian. Each tells his own version of what happened. Only one reveals the extraordinary truth. (1-57322-082-5)
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0425167720, Mass Market Paperback)

An Instance of the Fingerpost is that rarest of all possible literary beasts--a mystery powered as much by ideas as by suspects, autopsies, and smoking guns. Hefty, intricately plotted, and intellectually ambitious, Fingerpost has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and, for once, the comparison is apt.

The year is 1663, and the setting is Oxford, England, during the height of Restoration political intrigue. When Dr. Robert Grove is found dead in his Oxford room, hands clenched and face frozen in a rictus of pain, all the signs point to poison. Rashomon-like, the narrative circles around Grove's murder as four different characters give their version of events: Marco da Cola, a visiting Italian physician--or so he would like the reader to believe; Jack Prestcott, the son of a traitor who fled the country to avoid execution; Dr. John Wallis, a mathematician and cryptographer with a predilection for conspiracy theories; and Anthony Wood, a mild-mannered Oxford antiquarian whose tale proves to be the book's "instance of the fingerpost." (The quote comes from the philosopher Bacon, who, while asserting that all evidence is ultimately fallible, allows for "one instance of a fingerpost that points in one direction only, and allows of no other possibility.")

Like The Name of the Rose, this is one whodunit in which the principal mystery is the nature of truth itself. Along the way, Pears displays a keen eye for period details as diverse as the early days of medicine, the convoluted politics of the English Civil War, and the newfangled fashion for wigs. Yet Pears never loses sight of his characters, who manage to be both utterly authentic denizens of the 17th century and utterly authentic human beings. As a mystery, An Instance of the Fingerpost is entertainment of the most intelligent sort; as a novel of ideas, it proves equally satisfying.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:02 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

When a fellow of New College in seventeenth-century Oxford is found dead and a young woman is accused of his murder, four witnesses, each with his own agenda, tell what they saw, but only one speaks the truth.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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