With An Instance of the Fingerpost, author Iain Pears enters literary territory previously explored by writers as diverse as Umberto Eco, Don DeLillo, and E. L. Doctorow: the historical novel that weaves actual events and individuals into its fictional story. It is in Eco’s footsteps that Pears follows most closely. Like the acclaimed Italian author of Il nomo della rosa (The Name of the Rose, 1980), he has chosen the murder mystery as his genre and then used it as a means of examining subjects far beyond the ordinary mystery’s scope. Pears’s ostensible focus is the death of a garrulous Oxford Fellow, Robert Grove, but his true subject is England during the tumultuous period known as the Restoration.
After years of bloody civil war, the beheading of Charles I, and the strife-ridden Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II saw a flourishing of art, science, and philosophy. The strains of discord within English society ran deep, however, and long-held religious enmity continued to shape political policy. It is in this climate of change, unrest, and religious intolerance that Pears has set his story, and its conflicts and complexities provide the book with its dramatic substance.
At the center of Pears’s story is the death by poisoning of Robert Grove. The person suspected of the crime is Sarah Blundy, a servant girl Grove had recently dismissed after rumors of suspected intimacy between the two began to circulate within the university. Grove had also refused to assist Sarah’s badly injured mother, Anne, who is herself a religious reformer and the wife of a political radical. As information about Grove’s final hours becomes known, a web of gossip and possible evidence begins to ensnare Sarah, and she is imprisoned. What emerges as layer upon layer is added to the complex tale is the young girl’s extraordinary position as a touchstone for a number of sensitive political issues of the day.
In a technique used perhaps most famously by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in his 1950 film Rashomon, Pears makes use of multiple narrators to tell his story. The book is divided into four sections, each of which relates the events surrounding Grove’s murder from a different point of view. As each section unfolds, a new layer of information—and at times misinformation—is added, often throwing what has gone before into doubt. The first section, entitled “A Question of Precedence,” introduces the Venetian scholar Marco da Cola, who informs the reader that in 1663 he traveled to England to investigate problems threatening his merchant father’s business interests. It is through the outsider da Cola’s eyes that readers first encounter the world of seventeenth century England and meet the individuals who will play a role in the novel. Written many years after the events he is describing, da Cola’s manuscript serves as the catalyst for the sections that follow, as three of the story’s key characters read his accounting and respond with versions of their own.
Da Cola is thrust into the center of the events in Oxford when he offers to treat Sarah Blundy’s injured mother. A student of medicine with an interest in theories of blood circulation, he is soon befriended by Richard Lower, an Oxford doctor and actual historical figure who would later become the best-known physician of his day. Through Lower, da Cola also meets philosopher John Locke, architect Christopher Wren, and chemist Robert Boyle, three men whose ideas and discoveries helped shape the age in which they lived. In Lower’s company, da Cola attends a performance of William Shakespeare’s King Lear—which he dislikes—and takes part in several medical and scientific experiments, often performed on live animals, that seem barbaric by modern standards. His most notable experiment, however, is performed on Anne Blundy when he and Lower attempt to cure her with a transfusion of her daughter’s blood.
One of the strengths of Pears’s storytelling is his ability to capture not only the physical details of seventeenth century life but also the ideas and attitudes of the period as well. Through da Cola’s discussions with Lower and his friends, the reader receives a picture of the exact state of medical knowledge in 1663—and the gaps in that knowledge that could be supplied today by anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of human physiology. As the men speak with assurance of the dangerous vapors that fresh air will bring to a sickroom or the vital spirits that blood transports to the mind, the reader is presented with a portrait of another time...
(The entire section is 1902 words.)