Saturday, 5 February 2011

Iain Pears: Stone's Fall (2009)

Iain Pears has to be one of my favourite crime authors. The magnificent An Instance of the Fingerpost is an incredible historical thriller, with three different solutions to the mystery being presented by different narrators, while the Jonathan Argyll series is an entertaining and amusing romp through the Italian art world. The two are very different sides to Pears' talent, and his newest novel, Stone's Fall is cut from the same cloth as An Instance of the Fingerpost.

Indeed, it uses quite a lot of the same structure. Stone's Fall is divided into three main parts, with a short introduction; they are arranged in reverse historical order. All are concerned with Edwardian financier John Stone, whose death falling from a window prompts his widow to employ a young journalist (Matthew Braddock) to investigate the strange bequest in his will to a child that neither she nor the will's executor knew existed, under the guise of researching an autobiography of Stone. The investigation becomes entangled with the finances of the companies owned by Stone, which are mainly armaments firms, with international politics, and with Braddocks infatuation with Stone's widow. He does eventually find a solution which convinces him, but that is only the end of the first part.

In the second part, we go back thirty years, and the narrator is now Henry Cort, a spy from the first part, now at the beginning of his career in Paris in the years after the Franco-Prussian war. This again involves Stone's (future) wife, and a plot to destabilise the Bank of England by discrediting Barings Bank, one of the biggest Victorian investment banks. This sheds further light on the personalities involved in the first part, and suggests that the convenient solution for Stone's death may not actually be correct. The narrator of the final part is Stone himself, as a young man in Venice in the 1860s; characters include Cort's father. Here we find out the origins of Stone's fortune - Braddock had wondered how someone without the training of an engineer had been able to set up a company to produce a revolutionary torpedo from a design he provided. And, again, new light is shed on Stone's death; he wrote the memoir just before his fall.

I did feel that the re-use of the tripartite structure, with a similar purpose to that in An Instance of the Fingerpost, reduced its impact. On the other hand, Agatha Christie finishes many of her novels with scenes where Poirot confronts the murder suspects as a group, and these scenes are so similar they almost follow the same script as each other (Poirot describes the evidence against someone innocent, they protest, Poirot agrees and skewers the real killer). That is not the case here; Stone's Fall is a very different thriller from An Instance of the Fingerpost, not just because it has a later historical setting. It just seems a repeat because of the striking nature of the concept. While in Pears' earlier novel, it seems as though the use of the device is making the point that it is possible to come up with multiple solutions as convincing as those most crime novels have, here his little reminder to the genre is that the kind of clear cut solution common in murder fiction are not the way that things really are; the truth behind most killings is more complex than just who did what when, and it can be the case that the roots of the death of a man like Stone could run many years back into the past. It is perhaps fair to say that Stone's Fall is concerned with emotional depth, while An Instance of the Fingerpost is about glittering cleverness. But in the end, the earlier novel was always clearly destined to be a classic of the genre, while Stone's Fall is just very good indeed. My rating: 8/10.

Edition: Vintage, 2010
Review number: 1413

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