My first encounter with the novels of Iain Pears was An Instance of the Fingerpost, published in 1999. I was enthralled by a story that was almost hypnotic, not to mention almost impossible to put down (and it was a long story). I was just as taken by a second novel, The Dream of Scipio (2003), and how Pears used the idea of time as the framework for his story.
Between those two novels, Pears drew upon his background as an art historian to begin what became a series of seven “art history mysteries:” The Raphael Affair, The Last Judgment, The Titian Committee, Death and Restoration, The Bernini Bust, Giotto’s Hand and The Immaculate Deception. The books are wonderful mysteries, and you learn about the art and the art world at the same time you’re enjoying a good story.
Pears has also written the novel The Portrait (2006) and The Discovery of Painting: The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England, 1680-1768.
In 2010, Pears published Stone’s Fall, which I have finally gotten around to reading. Here, rather than drawing upon his knowledge of and experience with art, he utilizes his experience as a journalist (BBC, Reuter’s and others) and creates a story about the world a few years before World War I. Almost like an investigative journalist, Pears leads the reader down a path of armaments manufacturing, the Industrial Revolution, international finance and diplomatic intrigue.
But even more than that, he takes us back in time, from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890 and Venice in 1867, telling his story in almost reverse chronological order.
In 1909, in his London home on St. James Square, 68-year-old businessman John Stone falls out of a window to his death. The police conclude it was an accident, that Stone tripped on a carpet in front of the window and fell. No one wants to consider suicide, because Stone is the center of an industrial armaments empire that stretches globally, and his shareowners include people at the highest levels of the British government.
Stone’s considerably younger wife Elizabeth hires a something journalist, Matthew Braddock, to ostensibly write a biography of her late husband but actually to discover the identity of the child mentioned in Stone’s will. The will doesn’t give a name, gender or age, but there is some 250,000 pounds left to “the child.” As he investigates, Braddock stumbles into Stone’s web businesses and business / political relationships. The young Braddock also falls in love with the considerably older Elizabeth Stone.
The story moves backward to Paris in 1890, with a tale of intrigue spun to bring down the Bank of England. But even then, the story has murkier antecedents, in the Venice of 1867, and the creation of the torpedo and adulterous relationships among the English ex-pat community.
Similar to what he did in The Dream of Scipio, Pears uses time as a major structuring device for the novel. By essentially telling the story backwards, he employs the line from William Wordsworth, “The child is father to the man.” The great events and the individual lives of today owe much to the past, even if and especially when we don’t realize it. In Stone’s Fall, that line is almost literally true, but the child mentioned in the will becomes the key to what happens over the next 40 years.
It’s a captivating read, and another great story by the author.
Painting: Canal of the Giudecca, Venice, oil on canvas by Edward William Cooke (1867). Tate Britain, London.