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An Instance of the Fingerpost Hardcover – March, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.

From Library Journal

England of the 1660s was full of political and intellectual turmoil, speculation, and experimentation?not to mention a cast of colorful and controversial characters. It is firmly within this maelstrom that Pears (The Last Judgment, LJ 2/1/96) has set this massive historical whodunit. A fellow of New College, Oxford, is found dead of arsenic poisoning (from a fancy carafe of brandy), and a young woman of the evening is accused, sentenced, and hanged for his murder. Case seemingly closed. But no, four very different versions of what really happened to the late Professor Grange related by four eyewitnesses to the crime weave a convoluted fabric of religious, scientific, and political intrigue. Basing his novel loosely upon an actual case from the period, Pears pits the key minds of the day?Boyle, Locke, Wren, and others against one another as each takes a shot at gaining from the event. Strange bedfellows indeed. Followers of Brother Cadfael and the works of Anne Perry and Umberto Eco will revel in this smartly paced, rather tongue-in-cheek tour de force.
-?Susan Gene Clifford, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, Cal.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 691 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books (March 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573220825
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573220828
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 7.2 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (396 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #892,872 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I liked "An Instance of the Fingerpost" very much and will undoubtedly read more of Iain Pears' novels.
Aleksandra Nita-Lazar
This is a very complex story with many subplots and to simply qualify it as boring, too long or ridiculous is without merit.
This story is very interesting and the way he intertwines history into the plot is not only great but very educational.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

148 of 157 people found the following review helpful By Ian A. MacDonald on November 8, 1999
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This is a long (680 pgs in my paperback edition--bought from A.c, by the way) historical novel set in reformation England-mostly Oxford. The story comprises four distinct memoirs-seemingly written in about 1680-that recall events during 1663. The characters are mostly historical figures-actually two of the narrators are fictitous, two are genuine, while secondary characters include Robert Boyle, James Locke, and other lesser know figures of the restoration. Pears' historical knowledge seems formidable and the reader can look forward to learning much about this era. Most impressive to me was the great authenticity of the narrative voices and the almost flawless resolution of an intricate story line.
This is a mystery, much in the tradition of "The Name of the Rose," but with a deep bow to "Roshamon." For the story to work, each of the narrators has to come across as a genuine character of the 17th century. Pears accomplishes this by skillfully blending the style and syntax of the era with contemporaneous prejudices and ignorance. Every once in a while you can hear the style relapse to modern-speak for a bit, but Pears gets so much right that it's hard to quibble. The characters profess belief in magic and archaic medical theory with casual conviction. They are mired in-to modern ears-an appallingly oppressive attitude toward women and "common" people. At the same time, these are the leading scientists and philosophers of their time; hearing them you get the strong sense that their society is beginning to break free and move toward genuine science and egalitarian politics. It is a remarkable achievement for a novel-all the more so because it is also a gripping thriller.
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85 of 88 people found the following review helpful By drdebs on June 7, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Warning: This is not a pick it up and finish it in a day kind of book. No matter how many historical mysteries you read you will not be able to get through this book in a day, or even several days.
That being said, it is one of the most rewarding mysteries you are likely to read. Pears's incredibly detailed depiction of Oxford in the late seventeenth century bristles with life, lust, and treachery. First through the eyes of a wandering Italian Marco da Cola, and then through the eyes of other major figures like John Wallis and Anthony Wood, we are introduced to the strange events surrounding an even stranger person: Sarah Blundy. The history of science and medicine is very accurate and very well-treated (not always the same thing!), especially in the sections on Wallis and Wood. The pace of the book does pick up the deeper we get into the twisting paths of Oxford life and legend, but I don't think that makes the first two accounts any less riveting. Instead, it brings home how different people see the same events, and makes us evaluate more critically every "fact" we think we know.
This would be a great book to take on a one-week vacation, since it will probably get you through the whole thing without having to take 6 books with you. If you like historical mysteries or historical fiction, or even the history of medicine, I highly recommend this book to you.
PS. The ending knocks you off your feet. Totally unexpected!
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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Mark Taylor on August 4, 1999
Format: Mass Market Paperback
In addition to echoing the words of praise written by other reviewers, I implore you to heed a few words of advice:
1. DO NOT read too many reviews here! There are big spoilers below that will ruin your own experience of this novel. Once you're convinced to read this book, skip the rest of these reviews and come back when you're done!
2. Read a summary of the historical background of this period in English history and be ready to refer to it often. An encyclopedia would be handy for background on some of the historical figures.
3. Don't be in a rush. You'll be reading this for the first time only once; savor the details as you go.
4. I agree with an earlier reviewer: take notes. The book is simply too long and complex to keep everything straight in your head. Familiar names reappear in the story, events resurface, and a few notes about the characters and plot will help jog your memory. In this respect the novel reminds me greatly of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. You'll miss a lot if you just plow through at top speed.
Does all this sound like a lot to ask? It may be for some readers. But some of the best things in life require a little effort.
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41 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Ron Gilmour ( on June 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I'm not sure I agree with the similarity between this book and Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, nor do I wish to see Pears' originality diminished by constant comparison with this great work. This book can stand on its own merits quite nicely. The storytelling is fabulous and the twists and turns of the plot always manage to be perfectly believable yet totally unexpected.
The book is complex, and I must thank Mr. Pears for including the Dramatis Personae section at the end. Besides helping the reader sort through the host of characters, it also sets the record straight on which ones are real, fictional, or some combination. Among the historical celebrities who people the novel are Robert Boyle, John Locke, and Christopher Wren, making this book a great lesson in the history of scientific thought and politics in the middle ages.
The crowning glory of the novel is the apparent ease with which Mr. Pears allows us to see the world through the eyes of the four narrators. (In this respect I found myself thinking of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.) Not only are we shown different perspectives on the events, but the "facts" of the events themselves become as fluid as the writer's prose.
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