Iain Pears’s Stone’s Fall is a puzzle that may be likened to a set of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls. It consists of three interconnected tales with three distinct narrators. Each successive tale is nested within the one before it and takes place during an earlier time in the life of a British businessman named John Stone. Each addition to his story challenges readers’ previous impressions and uncovers more information about Stone’s rise to great heights in the power structure of Europe before World War Iheights from which he inevitably and fatally falls.
Over the last decade, Pears has risen to heights of his own. With An Instance of the Finger Post (1998), he won recognition as an author of detective fiction as cerebral as that of Umberto Eco, to whom he is often compared. He widened the historical sweep of his fiction considerably with The Dream of Scipio (2002) and sharpened its focus with The Portrait (2006). Stone’s Fall, though not the longest of Pears’s novels, is the one that covers the broadest social and geographical range. Whereas the earlier mysteries focused on science, philosophy, or art, the new novel takes on the structure of modern banking and finance, as well as the emergence of the arms race among western European powers. Adding to the intrigue are side excursions into such areas as socialism, spiritualism, and newspaper management. Readers learn about these topics along with the narrators, and some of the lessons are eerily reminiscent of the world economic crisis taking place at the time of the book’s publication.
Stone represents a new kind of businessman that emerged in the late nineteenth century, one interested less in the product than in the deal. In the vocabulary of the late twentieth century, he has a flair for integrating markets, both vertically and horizontally, and for leveraging assets. He builds up a multinational corporation as well as an investment group, with which the rich and powerful invest their savings. He considers himself a loyal British subject and is made a peer of the realm, but by the time he is knighted he is selling arms to rival governments, convinced that he is helping maintain the balance of power. (“It is not the task of my companies to make Britain more secure,” he rationalizes; “it is the duty of Britain to make my companies more secure.”) Stone’s new title, Lord Ravenscliff, seems oddly appropriate: From his lofty vantage point, he can survey all possible prey.
The novel opens in Paris in 1953, when a retired journalist learns that Stone’s widow will be buried there that day. Matthew Braddock worked briefly for Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, and, although embittered by the experience, he attends the funeral service. There, he happens to meet a London attorney whose firm just happens to have something for him. A longtime associate of Lord and Lady Ravenscliff, Henry Cort, left a box to be delivered to Braddock only after both of the Ravenscliffs were dead. Before retrieving the box, Braddock reads over a manuscript that he prepared after working for Elizabeth.
Dated “London, 1909,” Braddock’s tale is the largest of the narrative nesting boxes. As a successful crime reporter, he is engaged, at his editor’s recommendation, to help Elizabeth find a mysterious child mentioned in her late husband’s will. Thanks to a generous retainer and new contacts in the upper stratum of British society, Braddock quickly learns about Stone’s economic genius and personal concerns. He turns up many mysteries surrounding Stone’s death, but his leads take him nowhere. He suspects that he was hired so that the mysteries would remain unsolved and the estate would remain in the hands of Elizabeth, who seems to be Stone’s equal in many respects, including cleverness and rapaciousness. Only in the last pages of his narrative does Braddock gain an understanding of the facts behind Stone’s life and death. Even then, he learns these facts from shadowy and suspicious man, a government agent named Henry Cort.
The box left for Braddock contains the second narrative Chinese box, written by Cort and dated “Paris, 1890.” As a young civil servant, Cort knew the future Lord and Lady Ravenscliff. When he discovered the makings of a financial crisis that would cause a run on every British bank, he engaged them to help resolve it. Several decades later, as he approached death, Cort decided to leave his manuscript for Braddock. As a trusted associate, he was in possession of some of Stone’s papers, including a narrative that Stone wrote during the weeks leading up to...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)