Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1997
Review number: 246
Iain Pears' current best seller is something of a tour-de-force of historical detective novel writing. It is the story of the visit made by a Venetian, Marco de Cola, to Oxford during the 1660s - the early years of the Restoration of the monarchy after the rule of Cromwell. Politically, these were days of shifting loyalties (due in large part among the upper classes to Charles II's somewhat inconsistent rewarding of services made to him and punishment of attacks against him during his years of exile). It is also an exciting time for science in England, seeing the formation of the Royal Society and the emergence of modern scientific methods. Specific aspects that make themselves apparent in An Instance of the Fingerpost include: more and more pre-eminence accorded to experiment; almost daily advances in medicine as dissection of human bodies becomes more acceptable; the feeling that ideas and knowledge should be made public.
During Cola's stay in Oxford, one of the fellows of New College dies in somewhat suspicious circumstances; using some of the new scientific techniques, it is discovered that he drank wine poisoned with arsenic. Suspicion falls on a young woman, a former servant dismissed by this man; she is in the end hanged on her own confession.
An Instance of the Fingerpost (the title is a quotation from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum Scientarum about the feature of a puzzle which points the way to a true explanation of it, which in the original context is to do with the foundations of modern science which so concern this book) consists of four accounts of these events from the points of view of different men. Each writer has his own concerns and obsessions, their own reasons for recording or suppressing (or forgetting or misunderstanding) parts of what happened, and Pears manages the literary feat of making each seem to come from the pen of a different personality.
As with any historical novel, the main ingredient by which the reader judges An Instance of the Fingerpost is the evocation of the period in which it is set. It has a very strong seventeenth century atmosphere; the accounts may be in modern English, but they are full of ideas and modes of thought which are typical of the period, akin to the writings of the early scientists who are the major characters of the book. A word of warning, though: descriptions of seventeenth century medical practice and experimentation are not for the squeamish reader.
The novel of which An Instance of the Fingerpost most reminded me is Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose. There are several reasons for this, including similarities in genre (both being at the literary end of the historical detective novel market) and setting (among those involved in the philosophical developments which led to modern science - and among celibate communities, Oxbridge college fellows being forbidden to marry until well into the nineteenth century). It is the quality of the writing within the genre, though, which is perhaps the most important link.