Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Murder Most Foul

AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST. By Iain Pears . Riverhead Books: 694 pp, $27

March 08, 1998|ALFRED MAC ADAM | Alfred Mac Adam teaches comparative and Latin American literature at Barnard College and Columbia University

Readers of Iain Pears' 17th century murder mystery might prep for the experience by delving into Gilbert Burnet's "History of My Own Times," Samuel Pepys' "Diary," Clarendon's "The History--True Historical Narrative of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England," Sir Thomas Browne's "Urne Burial," Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" and Francis Bacon's "Novum Organum Scientarum"--the source of Pears' title and the epigraphs that introduce three chapters. Those too impatient for such extended foreplay should simply dive headfirst into this fascinating leviathan.

The miscellaneous reading list above provides the increasingly hypothetical reader with information about the politics, personalities and daily life of England in the 17th century (Burnet, Clarendon, Pepys), how that age viewed death and immortality (Browne), what its notions of psychology were (Burton's melancholy is what we call depression) and how Pears thinks we ought to approach a 17th century mystery (Bacon). An excellent tale of murder, "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is also a careful reconstruction of cultural history. In fact, the epigraph that opens the novel is a truncated passage from the second chapter of Cicero's "On Oratory," originally a homage to the power of orators but here transformed into a glorification of history as a source of truth, and the fingerpost, a 17th century signpost, refers to discoveries we make during research that, reconsidered, lead us from first assumptions to correct conclusions.

The murder that moves the plot in "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is that of Richard Grove, a genuine fellow of New College, Oxford during the period covered by the novel. Grove is a tedious, flatulent boor, a churchman who refuses to help the ailing mother of his former servant, Sarah Blundy. When Grove is found dead and his death ascertained to have been caused by poison, suspicion falls on Sarah, her motive being revenge. There are other suspects, but Sarah seems the most plausible because of her fiery nature, circumstantial evidence and false testimony.

Her crime is not merely murder but "petty treason": the murder of a master by a servant, a crime tantamount to patricide and punishable by burning. Lost in a flurry of political and sexual politics is the possibility that others may have had better motives than revenge, especially pure rage and blind ambition. But hovering over all the accusations leveled against Sarah Blundy is the heavy hand of destiny: She must die, though even those responsible for executing her cannot understand the complete implications of her death. What seems a matter of political or personal expediency is a sacrifice, as Sarah herself states while in a mystical trance: "In each generation the Messiah suffers until mankind turns away from evil."

In the 17th or the 20th century, murder is a crime, the only crime appropriate for genuine detective literature, and sleuths of any age must sift through the evidence, avoid red herrings, unravel the plot (in this case, a story and a conspiracy), which has been confabulated by the murderer to perpetrate the crime and an escape, and ultimately rewrite that plot in order to catch the criminal. Both sleuth and malefactor are surrogate authors; the reader, especially in Pears' book, is a surrogate detective.

Bacon's "Novum Organum" is not a manual for would-be private investigators, but its catalog of errors and fallacies, which Bacon terms "idols," is an admirable guide for any detective. Pears uses three of Bacon's idols: Chapter 1 opens with the Idols of the Market-Place--words, abstractions like truth, beauty or honor that we will die for but whose meaning we can't define; Chapter 2 begins with the Idols of the Cave--innate assumptions, the idea that we can believe what our senses tell us; Chapter 3 is introduced by the Idols of the Theater--the erroneous conventional wisdom we receive in school and unconsciously parrot. The Baconian detective distrusts his senses, resists his fondest theories, questions preconception and prejudice and subjects every aspect of his education to skepticism.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|