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Monday, November 29, 2010

Page-turning with Pears: “Stone’s Fall” and its mysteries

As regular readers of this blog know, I am not generally one for popular contemporary fiction and generally prefer to sequester in the “forgotten” section of the library getting all dusty and reading books that nobody has heard of. Not quite all the time though… Since reading An Instance of the Fingerpost I have been a declared Iain Pears fan and not ashamed to say so. When I saw his new novel Stone’s Fall on 3 for 2 at Hatchards, I thought – well; go on – you know that you like a bit of costumed mystery and mayhem. That is exactly what you get here, and it is jolly good too.

I don’t think that I would be giving too much away if I said that Stone’s Fall is about a wealthy Victorian financier who falls to his death from the first floor window of his London town house at a time when his labyrinthine businesses are not doing at all well and he and his glamorous wife Elizabeth have become embroiled in an anarchist group which is, on any reckoning, quite contrary to their interests.

Just like An Instance of the Fingerpost – Stone’s Fall is a revelation in three parts. Three different narrators focus on the same object. That object is actually a woman – the beguiling Elizabeth. She is rich and beautiful and graceful and lovely but who is she and where does she come from? When the dark and ruthless underbelly of her personality manifests itself, as it occasionally does, how can it be explained? I rather get the impression that Iain Pears must be one of those people who loves to chew over things and analyse them again and again. So – he sets about revealing Elizabeth by degrees through the eyes of men who in differing ways and to varying extents adore her.

The first part is the bewildering and at times hilarious adventures of Matthew Braddock. Braddock is a Fleet Street hack (in the days when that meant that he was a journalist, not a lawyer or an investment banker) whose career in crime writing has done little more than keep him in gin. He has a few pals to go to for advice and he has a journalist’s nose for a story but other than that he is hopelessly unsuitable for the role which is inflicted upon him in this novel. He is hired by the mysterious and rather sexy widow Elizabeth to unravel a bizarre clause in her husband’s will. He is not quite up to the task but he does know when there are forces at work which he doesn’t understand. The reader emerges from his chapters with a real affection for him but with far more questions than answers about the mystery in hand.

Part the second is the contribution of the banker turned proto spook Henry Cort. This part of the book is intricate and exquisite – it is by far and away my favourite section. The man who emerges from the pages is clever, urbane and self reliant. He is also arrogant and hubristic. At the dramatic climax of his story, he commits an act of dreadful, spine chilling betrayal, which had me reeling in my chair, shocked to my core. Pears plays a clever game with his readers when it comes to Cort. He gives you enough information to be attracted and repelled. For those who are attracted, he gives enough history for an excuse (did I say excuse, I meant explanation…) Cort has more than a bit of the Michael Corleone about him, and I declare here and now that I rather fancied him.

The final third is told by John Stone himself and will, needless to say, answer most of the questions (of which there are many) thrown up by the preceding pages.

This is a superb historical mystery with wonderful characters and twists. There is an extra big twist at the end which I was happy with but which I understand other readers have felt was “twisting for twistings sake”. You will have to read for yourself to see what I mean.

There is an excellent review by Clare Clark in the Guardian and another by Jake Kerridge in the Telegraph. In the blogosphere Farm Lane Books, My Blank Thoughts, and MJ’s Literary Odyssey also have something to say. I have featured here a picture of the front cover, a picture of Pears himself and also, for fun, the site of the novel’s opening, and a place I love, the church of St-Germain des Pres in Paris.

13 comments:

  1. Hi Hannah

    Sorry, a bit Off Topic, but I wondered if you and your readers would like to enter The Dabbler's competition to win a copy of Slightly Foxed's special Christmas Fox edition...

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  2. Stone's Fall was one of my favourite reads of 2009. I loved the twist in the end and I thought it made the book extra special!

    I haven't read any of his other books, but bought a copy of Fingerpost recently. It is great to see that you enjoyed both. I hope I love it as much as this one.

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  3. Very intriguing review! I've never read him, and I love to discover new mysteries. Just put this on my library request list.

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  4. This one has always appealled ever since I saw it on thetvbookclub.Its just getting around to ordering it!

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  5. Wow! I loved Fingerpost and you have made me really really want to read this! Thanks.

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  6. I have been wanting to read An Instance of the Fingerpost for such a long time! It is sitting here on my shelf, looking neglected, and calling to me. Maybe I should remedy that!

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  7. Ooh, I have this at home but not sure from the blurb if I will like it. Your review makes me more interested though...

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  8. Hannah...this sounds wonderful. Pears is a good author IMO.

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  9. Lovely review! I love the book's cover; it looks very attractive. I am definitely intrigued by this book. If Cort is anything like Michael Corleone then I am sure I will like him too!

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  10. I loved this, it was a real page-turner.

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  11. I keep forgetting to read this! I love a twisty novel, and can even forgive twists for twists' sake as long as the rest of the book can back them up. Pears sounds amazing.

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  12. I will have to read this! I enjoy Ian Pears's novels so I'm looking forward to a well-written historical mystery. Thank you for the review.

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  13. Fascinating -- Great review! I'm adding it to the list. thanks!

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