Book Review: 'An Instance of the Fingerpost' by Iain Pears

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Review by Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 8, 1998


By Iain Pears

Riverhead. 691 pp. $27

Oxford, 1663. Following more than 20 years of civil and religious upheaval, a king once again sits on the English throne. The Protector Oliver Cromwell is dead; the Levellers, Diggers and other such factions -- with their wild dreams of an egalitarian society -- have been destroyed or dispersed; peace, finally, has returned to a ravaged land . . . or has it?

So begins Iain Pears's crafty, utterly mesmerizing intellectual thriller, An Instance of the Fingerpost. As haunting as The Name of the Rose and as gripping as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it is a novel about deception and self-deception, about the scientific method and Jesuitical chicanery, above all about political expedience and religious transcendence. Every sentence in the book is as solid as brick -- and as treacherous as quicksand. Long ago, a fingerpost was a crossroads marker that used a painted finger to indicate the right direction. For most of this long narrative, there is no such reliable pointer. In these pages we are lost in a wilderness of mirrors, doubting testimony, evidence and even confession, ultimately unsure of who is using or betraying whom. But with perfect mastery Pears gradually takes us from an unexplained death in a small college town to a revelation that could shake the foundations of England and the world.

One afternoon an Italian gentleman named Marco da Cola arrives in Oxford, seeking the noted scientist Robert Boyle, the "father of chemistry." Cola has been studying medicine in Leiden, with a particular interest in the properties of blood, and he has come at his teacher's suggestion to pay his respects to Boyle. The Italian is easygoing, amiable, and perhaps just a little naive. Almost everyone likes him immediately. And yet -- is he in truth what he seems, a simple student of natural philosophy? After all, a man may smile and smile -- and be a villain.

One of the few who feel suspicious is John Wallis, the greatest mathematician in England before Newton, and for many years the chief codebreaker for John Thurloe, the head of Cromwell's intelligence service. Wallis possesses an icy, even cruel intelligence, being one of those men with a legion of admirers and no friends. Strangely enough, he has survived the Restoration, as has his even more formidable master: the courteous, gentle-spoken Thurloe -- who, according to Wallis, "could be more terrifying with less effort than any man I knew. " Thurloe now lives in seclusion on the outskirts of town. Is he merely the retired civil servant he claims to be?

Over the next few weeks Marco da Cola gradually grows acquainted with several Oxford notables -- medical student and philosopher John Locke, historian Anthony Wood, young Dr. Richard Lower -- but, most strangely, shows a peculiar interest in Anne Blundy and her daughter Sarah. The Italian treats the elder Blundy as she lies mortally ill, even though the pair are far too poor to pay him, and pays close attention to the talk of the pretty, introspective Sarah, branded a slut and widely suspected of being a witch. The father of the family, the soldier Ned Blundy, is dead but is remembered as a tireless fighter for absolute equality between women and men, peasants and aristocrats. It is said that he died under mysterious circumstances.

As does, one night, Dr. Robert Grove, a gruff, obstreperous don, suddenly poisoned in his chambers. Who did it? And, more important, why? Cola, Sarah, a young theology student named Thomas Ken, and one or two others had opportunity. But was Dr. Grove the intended victim, or could the poisoned wine have been meant for someone else?

This is the stuff of classic mystery, but Pears -- who has written a half-dozen contemporary whodunits involving the art world -- uses it mainly as the wedge to pry open other, far more deadly political secrets. The same night that Grove was murdered a young man named Jack Prestcott daringly escaped from prison, where he was awaiting execution for a murderous attack on his uncle. The youthful would-be lawyer is obsessed with proving the innocence of his dead father, Sir James Prestcott, a notorious traitor and double agent during the Civil War. In the second section of the novel, Jack lays out his efforts to unearth the truth about his father's role in a secret society called the Sealed Knot, and incidentally fills in some of the gaps in Cola's opening account of his event-filled visit to Oxford. In the novel's third section, Dr. Wallis takes over the story and relates how his return to cryptography, this time in the service of King Charles's minister Henry Bennet, leads him to understand the deeper purpose of Marco da Cola's sojourn in England. And, finally, in the last quarter of the novel, the genial local historian Anthony Wood does the honors, revealing the murderer of Dr. Grove, the secrets of Sir James Prestcott, the mystery of Marco da Cola, and the truth about Sarah Blundy.

John Locke set forth An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and one might very well adopt that phrase as a subtitle to this intellectual thriller. Early in the century Francis Bacon had established the inductive method, but had warned in his Novum Organum against the pitfalls that plague logical thinking, grouping such errors into four colorfully named categories: The so-called Idols of the Market represent a misuse of language; the Idols of the Cavern stand for personal obsessions; the Idols of the Theater lead us astray by false reasoning; and the Idols of the Tribe embody the fallacies common to all mankind. Pears alludes to the first three of these "idols" in his section epigraphs, thus giving strong hints as to how one is to understand the evidence of the various narrators. Surprisingly, Anthony Wood alone is allowed an "instance of the fingerpost which points in one direction only, and allows no other possibility." He claims to be "the perfectly independent eyewitness, who has nothing to gain from his revelation . . . his testimony may be said to be conclusive, overwhelming all lesser forms." But is he in fact such a witness? Perhaps we are meant to take Wood's testimony as an unacknowledged instance of an Idol of the Tribe, to suspect that he himself misunderstood at least some of the events he recounts because of his own subconscious will-to-believe.

"The mind of man unaided cannot grasp the truth," confesses Wood, "but only constructs fantasies and fictions which convince until they convince no more, and which are true only until discarded and replaced. The reasonableness of humanity is a puny weapon, blunt and powerless, a child's toy in a baby's hand. Only revelation, which sees past reason and is a gift neither earned nor deserved, says Aquinas, can take us to that place which is illuminated with a clarity beyond all intellect." Certainly Wood himself is vouchsafed a revelation beyond all intellect. Or so it appears.

I dislike being slightly coy about many of the incidents in An Instance of the Fingerpost, but it would be a shame to reveal the novel's carefully wrought surprises. Throughout, Pears's sentences stay simple and clear, marked by a wonderful evenness of tone that grows quite hypnotic; he is able to suggest his four different speakers by only the slightest shifts of voice. He is not a flamboyant writer, and thus doesn't quote well out of context, but he can be efficiently sardonic. When James Prestcott prepares to confront the astrologer Valentine Greatorex, he writes, "I went to the meeting with some trepidation for, although I might have met a wizard before, I had never encountered an Irishman." John Wallis places some surplus funds with a "gentleman who captured Africans for the Americas" and adds that this "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." Pears is also particularly effective in depicting half-acknowledged yearning (both heterosexual and homosexual), religious ecstasy, paranoia, and, not least, spiritual despair:

"And yet . . . the memory of that girl has begun to haunt me. It was a sin to wash my hands of her and stay quiet while she was condemned to death. I have known it always but never accepted it before now. I was tricked . . . into that dreadful deed, and was motivated solely by my desire for justice and always thought this excuse enough.

"All is known to the highest Judge of all and to Him I must entrust my soul, knowing that I have served him to the best of my ability in all my acts.

"But often now, late at night when I lie sleepless in my bed once more, or when I am deep in the frustration of prayers which no longer come, I fear my only hope of salvation is that His mercy will prove greater than was mine.

"I no longer believe it will."

For readers even a little familiar with the 17th century, it is pleasing to realize that "a bumptious man who works in the Navy Office" must be Samuel Pepys, or to recognize "King Lear" from Cola's disapproving description of the play. In fact, all but a handful of the characters are actual historical figures (Pears provides a convenient dramatis personae as an appendix, along with a chronology). Fans of Christopher Hill's many books on 17th-century intellectual history and of Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic may even have a leg up on more casual readers. But the best preliminary advice is to trust no one and to pay attention to traditional Christian imagery -- the symbolic use of doves in particular, though one might also want to reread the account of Pentecost in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. There are, after all, mysteries and Mysteries.

While Pears juggles faith and epistemology (the study of how we know things), he also plays the kinds of narrative tricks found in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and in classic whodunits such as Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, the latter a ziggurat of increasingly complex solutions to a single murder. In other words, An Instance of the Fingerpost should satisfy readerly tastes of every sort. And even if you half-guess one or two secrets, as I did -- both matters of blood -- it will hardly matter: There are others you will almost certainly miss. In fact, the book's twists, reversals and red herrings are so neatly executed that you could reread the novel just to savor the subtle tricks of omission and misdirection. Still, amid all the smoke and mirrors, one fact stands out with perfect clarity: Iain Pears has written an impressively original and audaciously imaginative intellectual thriller. Don't miss it.

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