By Anna Mundow
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
By Iain Pears
Spiegel & Grau. 594 pp. $27.95
Admirers of Iain Pears's "An Instance of the Fingerpost" have waited more than 10 years for another lengthy, serpentine thriller bearing the stamp of his erudition in matters historical, artistic and financial. "Stone's Fall" generously rewards their patience. A marvel of skillful agglomeration, the novel propels us backward in time to illuminate one man's rise and fall. The trajectory may be familiar, even predictable, but this particular tragedy encompasses the entire history of late mid-19th- to early-20th-century capitalism and provides enough romance and intrigue to fuel a dozen operas.
It all begins in London in 1909, when Matthew Braddock, a young reporter, accepts a private assignment from a beautiful widow, Elizabeth. John Stone, one of the world's richest financiers and arms dealers, has died in a mysterious defenestration and bequeathed money to a child of whom Elizabeth knew nothing. Braddock, posing as Stone's biographer, must find the child. That quest leads him to Britain's financial core, to shipyards, battleships, anarchists, morphine, illicit passion, even to an attempted royal assassination.
The novel's second section opens with a letter to Braddock from Henry Cort, a shadowy Stone associate. Cort, our new narrator, takes us back to Paris in 1890, where, as an apprentice spy for England, he learns that "the safety of the greatest empire the world had ever known depended on a bunch of friends and acquaintances, crooks and misfits." From a French banker, Cort gains a more vital insight about the emerging new order: "All the world is now convertible to money. Power, influence, peace and war . . . depend on the convertibility of your currency, its reputation among the bankers." The section ends with Cort attempting to save the Bank of England from ruin, but not before he has recruited both a key female agent/courtesan whose admirers include the Prince of Wales and John Stone.
Stone himself narrates the novel's final section, which describes a fateful sojourn in Venice in 1867 when his career and character are formed -- at a cost that becomes apparent only years later. His story reveals a shocking pattern underlying the novel's myriad dramas.
Pears is an exuberant writer who cannot resist a digression whether describing an incidental character or the invention of the torpedo. But his narrative chatter -- charming or trying, depending on your mood -- somewhat diminishes the major characters, whose individual voices are often lost in the general din. Only Elizabeth, Pears's most resourceful heroine and finest creation, remains utterly distinct. But that, perhaps, is Pears's point.
Mundow is a literary columnist for the Boston Globe and a contributor to the Irish Times.