Before ever picking up An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, I’d enjoyed Pears’s art history mystery series about down on his luck art historian, Jonathan Argyll, and ambitious Italian Art Squad researcher, Flavia di Stefano. Pears, himself, is an art historian, so the art rang true, and the mysteries were well thought out and challenging. Overall, the books were fun, interesting reads.
When I picked up An Instance of the Fingerpost, that is what I expected: a well plotted mystery and a fun easy read. After 50 or so pages, I put the book down and didn’t pick it up until probably six months later. An Instance of the Fingerpost is an extraordinary book. But an easy read? Not hardly. Not unless you’re doing it wrong.
What’s it About
Set in 17th century (Reformation) England, the book’s inciting incident is the poisoning death of an Oxford fellow. The circumstances surrounding the death are described by four different unreliable witnesses (two of which are historical figures), in four separate narratives. Each of the narratives presents a different account of the murder. Each implicates a different killer.
Why Read It?
Read it for it’s complexity as both mystery and historical fiction. Its intricate mix of fact, fiction, science, intrigue and philosophy set at a pivotal point in history make for a riveting story.
Read it to throw back in the face of the next cretin who tells you mysteries are nothing but pulp commercial fiction and can’t be literature. This book reminds of the breadth of the mystery genre, that its parameters extend far beyond cozies and procedurals.
Read one of Pears’s art history mysteries and then read An Instance of the Fingerpost to explore what a master stylist like Pears can accomplish within the genre. From engaging cleverly plotted formulaic mystery, to a book that is as much about ideas as it is a mystery. That the The Bernini Bust and An Instance of the Fingerpost came from the same hand and brain still astounds me.
Read it because Pears’s execution of four different viewpoints, four voices, is stunning. See what can be accomplished by a virtuoso storyteller and be inspired.