Complexity is the term that best describes Iain Pears’s writing. Although Pears has not written any theory of the novel, he is intensely interested in the elements of the novel—character, structure, setting, voice, and plot—and in the ways in which they can be used to create complex, multilayered narratives.
Pears uses a standard plot structure. He proposes a mystery to be solved and then recounts events leading to its resolution, yet he uses various devices to obscure answers and to create confusion. Subplots abound in his novels. In the Jonathan Argyll series, there is always an art theft and more often than not a murder to be solved. In addition to this main plot, Argyll is constantly burdened with career problems. Bottando is having his usual problems with the bureaucracy, and Flavia and Argyll are trying to find time for each other. Pears adds another dimension to his series as a result of this multiplot structure. Although the series is referred to as the Jonathan Argyll series and Argyll is a principal character, he is not really the only principal character. From Argyll’s arrest and initial contact with General Bottando and Flavia in The Raphael Affair, the three characters form a triumvirate that creates a multicharacter protagonist. Argyll provides the expertise in art necessary to solve the crimes, General Bottando the police procedural knowledge and skill in handling the corrupt political system under which they work, and Flavia the practical investigation techniques and legwork.
Pears’s characters are also complex and multifaceted. Many of them are not what they at first appear to be. As the plots unfold, surprising facts are revealed about the characters, but the characters themselves remain believable. For example, Mary Verney, the likable art thief who appears in a number of the mysteries, including Giotto’s Hand (1994) and The Immaculate Deception (2000), is the best example of this technique. Pears also creates what might be called “false characterization” through the description of characters by other characters. In The Immaculate Deception, Elena F. is described as a former terrorist capable of the worst atrocities by two of the individuals Flavia interviews in her investigation. On talking with Elena, Flavia instinctively feels that the woman is not as she has been described. Thus, Pears creates another mystery within the mystery.
Pears explores the many possibilities of narration in his novels. He uses primarily third-person narration, which gives him ample opportunity for description. Dialogue plays a significant role in his mysteries, as it affords him the opportunity to multiply the levels of narration. These narrators are usually unreliable and further complicate the solving of the mystery.
The majority of the Jonathan Argyll series novels take place in Italy, primarily in Rome. Pears’s familiarity with and love of Rome and Italy, coupled with the importance of art in Italian culture, make this the ideal setting for the series. Pears’s sensitivity to cultural differences and attention to authenticity of detail give the settings of his novels a place of almost equal importance with the characters. This is particularly true in Giotto’s Hand. In this novel, Argyll conducts part of the investigation in a small village in England. Local customs and ways significantly affect how he proceeds.
Pears’s novels are permeated with an irony that ranges from light humorous satire to the philosophical. In Death and Restoration (1996), he satirically portrays police procedure as...
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