In setting his novel in Oxford during the 1660s, a period of considerable political ferment, Pears has created the ideal backdrop for a lengthy but highly enjoyable novel which combines the best traditions of intellectual scholarship and a plot with real drive. The murder of Dr Robert Grove, a fellow of New College, and the events surrounding it are narrated from four significantly different points of view; Marco da Cola, a Venetian Catholic doctor newly arrived in Britain; Jack Prescott, son of a Royalist traitor and desperate to clear his beloved father's name; John Wallis, one of the mathematical giants whose shoulders bore Newton and a cryptographer to the courts of both Cromwell and Charles II; and Anthony Wood, an antiquary. All of these narratives, whilst necessarily differing in terms of fact, are also clearly defined voices without being caricatured, and the novel is suffused with characters of real depth, whether historical or fictitious, such as prime suspect Sarah Blundy, daughter of a religious dissenter, her mother, and the likes of Lower, Locke, Grove and Boyle.
The main character in the novel, however, is historical Oxford itself. As easy as it is to take this depiction for granted, the consistent references to actual historical figures and contemporary developments in medicine and fashion, as well as the acute observation of the social mores and deep-seated insecurity at the time of the Restoration are, on reflection, simply breathtaking: the depth of Pears' research is astonishing, and never intrudes on the development of the plot.
It is the plot, however, which slightly depreciates the five-star status the backdrop to this novel unquestionably demands. Whilst the conflicting descriptions of the course of events are as skilfully handled as the voices which relate them, I did not find the plot as genuinely 'unputdownable' as other reviewers have maintained. The conclusion, with its inevitable twist, is a bold attempt to resolve the mystery surrounding the discrepancy between accounts, but ultimately evokes a curiously mixed sense of incredulity and dissatisfaction. As spectacular as the setting and the narratives may be, it is this unsatisfactory ending which remains in the reader's mind, a crying shame when much of the novel which preceded the 'instance of the fingerpost' was so utterly exemplary.