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Iain Pears: Stone’s Fall

Iain Pears’s 1998 novel An Instance of the Fingerpost was one of the most addictive novels I’ve read, one of those books where you plan your life around when you’ll get to read it. It’s a long murder mystery set in 17th century England, told by a succession of unreliable narrators who keep exposing the lies and mistaken assumptions of the previous ones. I reread it a year or so ago and it was a bit disappointing — I think a lot of its impact comes from having your assumptions overturned, and when you already know what’s coming you’re largely sitting around waiting for it to happen — but it was a ton of fun the first time around.

Stone’s Fall is a similar sort of novel, this time “about” the European financial empires of the late 19th and early 20th century. As before, the story is told from the viewpoint of a succession of protagonists, each of which explains some of the mysteries left hanging earlier. The schtick this time is that each section takes place earlier in time than the preceding one, so you start out knowing how everything ends, and slowly discover the background that led to it.

As usual, I’m trying to remain spoiler-free, but I can say that I enjoyed it a great deal. Most reviewers seem to agree that the middle section is the most interesting; they tend not to like all three of them, but opinion is divided on whether the first or the last is disappointing. For me it was the last that I had the most trouble staying interested in; I wanted a headlong rush of mystery-resolving surprises, and had to reorient myself to the rather slow pace of the section. But fear not, the main questions do get resolved, and in a satisfying way. If you haven’t read any Pears, I would go for An Instance of the Fingerpost first (and I might even recommend The Dream of Scipio second, although it’s a slightly different sort of book), but if you loved that and were waiting for another similar book, this one shouldn’t disappoint you.