All I can say is, wow. Actually, I can say a lot more than that, but will try to hold my praise to an appropriate length. An Instance of the Fingerpost was a masterpiece of historical fiction, masquerading at first glance in the more humble guise of murder mystery. I first picked it up having heard favorable comparisons with Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose and Caleb Carr’s Alienist, always good signs in my opinion. I think the comparisons are accurate, though Pears’ writing is perhaps more readily accessible than that of Eco, whose work is scholarly enough to be off-putting in places; and the scope of Fingerpost is ultimately epic in scale compared with Carr’s serial murder story.
Fingerpost has, at its surface, a very simple premise. An Oxford don is murdered via arsenic, and his former servant-girl is condemned and executed for it as a result. The question of her guilt or innocence at first seems to be the focus of the book, which is written in four sections, each with a different narrator presenting his perception of the events leading up to her hanging. Yet as the narratives progress, and we learn more and more of the political and religious issues of Commonwealth and Restoration England, we slowly discover that there is much more at stake in the book than the fate of a mere servant-girl.
I loved the book right off the bat for the immersive quality of the narrative. Without resorting to the use of archaic grammar, the reader is entirely absorbed into the time period and world views of the four narrators, who come from a wide range of backgrounds and professions. The first is Marco da Cola, an Italian gentleman, a Catholic and ersatz medical student, arriving poor in Oxford as a result of problems with his father’s merchant holdings. The second is Jack Prestcott, an impoverished young nobleman who seeks to disprove the conviction that his father had been a traitor to the crown. Third is John Wallis, a priest and mathematician best known for his skills at cryptography. Finally, the book concludes with the account of Anthony Wood, an archivist and historian who draws together the intricate threads of the mystery in a way that is completely satisfying and almost miraculous.
Fingerpost is chock full of historical characters discussing and participating in important events in England’s political and religious history. It contains the conspiracy counterpart that I relish in this type of literature, without resorting to so-called secret societies or a need to conflate historical activities with contemporary ones. Finally, the story expands beyond its origins in historical murder mystery to such an epic scope that I am still processing some of the revelations at its end. It is the sort of book that one could read many times, and feel more and more satisfied with the conclusion each time the last page is turned. Yet amid the large-scale intrigue, the book’s themes are so well-grounded in the narrative that we still emerge with an acute sense of individual characters affecting the shape of history.
I hesitate to say much more in this review, fearing that I will say too much and spoil the experience for those who are interested in reading it. Perhaps the most helpful way I can conclude is to say that while I adored such books as The Name of the Rose, The Alienist, and Katherine Neville’s The Eight, and enjoyed others like The Dante Club, The Flanders Panel, or Angels and Demons, in my opinion, An Instance of the Fingerpost has the various strengths of those books and none of the weaknesses. I would highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in either mysteries or English history, and can only suggest that you set aside a good chunk of time to read it with as little interruption as possible.