In 1663 Oxford, a servant girl confesses to a murder. But four witnesses--a medical student, the son of a traitor, a cryptographer, and an archivist--each finger a different culprit...
This massive, delightfully titled literary thriller (it's a quote from Sir Francis Bacon) is the kind of gamble it's great to see a publisher taking in these often timid times. The English author, responsible so far for a series of conventional mysteries, has gone back to 17th-century Oxford for an absorbing, macabre tale of murder, politics, faith and betrayal. Featured in more than incidental roles are such real-life characters as John Locke, Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, King Charles II and the Earl of Clarendon. The murder by poisoning of Robert Grove, a Fellow of New College, and the subsequent trial and execution for the crime of Sarah Blundy, daughter of a freethinking early Socialist and anti-Royalist, is the heart of the action, which is related in four separate first-person accounts, each the length of a short novel. There is Marco da Cola, a good-hearted Venetian visitor whose irritable reflections on the English are witty and betray a perfect period ear; Jack Prestcott, a fiery young lawyer devoted to proving that his father, disgraced as a traitor, was himself betrayed; John Wallis, priest, mathematician and cryptographer of genius (also a real character), whose coldly cynical schemes set off a series of dazzlingly complex political maneuvers; and bookish scholar Anthony Wood, a background figure to the rest, but whose consuming love for Sarah makes him ultimately the central actor in the drama. Pears's grasp of the thought of the time, with its scientific zeal curbed always by what seems now like excess religiosity, its ferocious plotting and counterplotting, its struggles for power and position, is sure. Though there are many digressions, most are fascinating, and the book boasts an overall narrative momentum that carries even an ill-informed contemporary reader along. There will be inevitable comparisons with the work of Umberto Eco, but it seems likely that many of those who have bought Eco's books will find Pears by far the more accessible. 80,000 first printing; $150,000 ad/promo; BOMC main selection; foreign rights sold in the U.K., Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, Holland and Italy.
An Instance of the Fingerpost
Brilliant. I read this book many years ago and it sent me in search of everything Pears wrote before and after.