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

Murder Most Foul

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

Although Pears uses Bacon for the intellectual structure of his novel, he could have used two rather different models for the actual structure of his book. He might, improbably, have used Robert Browning's huge verse novel "The Ring and the Book" (1868-69), the story of a murder in Renaissance Italy whose characters make individual statements about the case in 10 dramatic monologues. The more likely precursor, Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone" (1868), does something similar, consigning the story not to a narrator but to a succession of characters, each of whom corrects the one before. "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is divided into four parts: the first narrated by a Venetian Papist, who is in England to retrieve some compromising papers and to baptize the king, Charles II; the second told by Jack Prestcott, a madman seeking to prove his father did not betray King Charles I; the third by John Wallis, geometrician and cryptographer for the royalists and Oliver Cromwell; the fourth by Anthony Wood, Oxford antiquarian and historian, who justifies Cicero's praise of history: He identifies the murderer and amasses the evidence for resolving the other mysteries of the story.

Grove's murder links the four narratives and is embedded in a labyrinth of politics, greed, bigotry, insanity and superstition. We are in England during the 1660s, the early years of the Restoration. Charles II, son of Charles I (executed in 1649), becomes king in 1660 but, despite hopes for amnesties and equanimity on both sides of the Commonwealth-Monarchy division, there is great discontent in England: fear (justified) that the monarch would convert to Catholicism and impose his religion on the nation and fear (again justified) that royal aspirations to absolutism would strip all power from both Parliament and people. During the 1660s, therefore, the murder of an Oxford professor would have political implications because so many secret deals, involving clerics and academics, had been made to bring about the Restoration without precipitating another bloody civil war that a violent crime would automatically suggest betrayal and retribution against Monarchists. Pears capitalizes on this both to confuse the reader about motive and to re-create the era.

The antiquarian urge to reconstruct places and customs haunts every page of his novel, but Pears never loses sight of his mystery. He does dare to introduce the scientist Robert Boyle, charter member of the Royal Society, and the young John Locke, intellectual prime mover of the Glorious Revolution that swept Charles II's brother and successor James II off the throne in 1688. Pears uses Boyle to dramatize the struggle of the new science against theology, while Locke is a mysterious young physician interested in the experiments with blood transfusion being carried out by Oxford scientists. Before the 1660s, doctors had no more social status than barbers, but the new university-trained physicians would also be gentlemen rather than laborers. Chronicling social change is one of Pears' strengths, as the transformation of artists in England after 1680 from blue-collar workers to professionals is one of the subjects of his 1988 book "The Discovery of Painting: The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England, 1680-1768."

Pears has used his experience of the art world to great advantage in his other detective novels, especially "The Bernini Bust" (1992). A different species of detective writing than "An Instance of the Fingerpost," it is satiric, reduces character to stereotype--grasping, boorish Americans, clever if clumsy English, worldly wise Italians--and deploys lots of humor. Like "Fingerpost," it uses a double conceit in which the genuine is passed off as a fraud and the fraudulent is palmed off as genuine.

This ingenious use of paradox reappears in "An Instance of the Fingerpost," but in a different key. Here we have two deaths: one a murder and the other an execution. Our problem is to discern motive. Who is the real victim: the corpus delicti or the alleged perpetrator? Why is it no one will believe the murderer when he confesses his crime? Another peculiarity of "The Bernini Bust" reverberates in this new novel, whose characters are much more complex and true to life: The hypotheses the detectives devise do not always fit the crimes they're investigating; that is, detectives make mistakes.

Pears accomplishes something quite extraordinary in "An Instance of the Fingerpost." He elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art. His novel will inevitably invite comparisons with Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," but Eco's equally long book is really an intellectual's revenge on moralists, in which a medieval monk, who considers humor sinful, refuses to copy Aristotle's treatise on comedy and is willing to kill to destroy the philosophical justification of comedy. Pears' story is more gritty; he writes closer to the genuine tradition of detective fiction and uses the historical setting not because it is quaint but because that age, except for technology, is so much like our own: Like us, the 17th century English are torn between science and religion, idealism and cynicism. In presenting the contradictions of the age, Pears proves that the past does have a future.

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