An Instance of the Fingerpost - Essay

Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Iain Pears’ literate murder mystery AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST explores the complex world of England during the Restoration in a novel reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1983). Told from multiple points of view and incorporating many actual historical figures, the book examines the difficulty of ascertaining the truth while offering a carefully reconstructed picture of life in the seventeenth century.

The story is divided into four sections. In the first, Venetian scholar and traveler Marco da Cola offers his version of the events surrounding the murder of Oxford Fellow Robert Grove. At the heart of the mystery is Grove’s former maid, Sarah Blundy. The child of religious radicals, Sarah falls under suspicion when it is learned that Grove has recently fired her after rumors of an affair between them began circulating in Oxford. Much of the evidence against Sarah is provided by Jack Prestcott, a young man determined to clear his father’s name of treason charges and also the narrator of the book’s second section. The third narrator, mathematician John Wallis, believes Sarah to be instrumental in anti-government plots, while Anthony Wood, an historian and the book’s fourth narrator, loves her.

As layer after layer of evidence and suspicion is revealed, AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST paints a vivid portrait of the intrigue that surrounded the end of England’s civil war and the return of the monarchy under Charles II. Self-interest, political expediency, and the social climate of the times all play a part in Sarah’s fate, with Pears’ startling conclusion placing the story’s final assessment in the hands of his readers.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXXI, April, 1998, p. 117.

Booklist. XCIV, December 1, 1997, p. 587.

The Christian Century. CXV, November 18, 1998, p. 1119.

Library Journal. CXXIII, January, 1998, p. 143.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 8, 1998, p. 6.

New Statesman. CXXVI, September 19, 1997, p. 47.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 22, 1998, p. 12.

Newsweek. CXXXI, April 27, 1998, p. 75.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 1, 1997, p. 43.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 29, 1997, p. 24.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, March 8, 1998, p. 1.