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An Instance Of The Fingerpost [Paperback]

Iain Pears
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
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Book Description

3 Sep 1998

Set in Oxford in the 1660s - a time and place of great intellectual, religious, scientific and political ferment - this remarkable novel centres around a young woman, Sarah Blundy, who stands accused of the murder of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College. Four witnesses describe the events surrounding his death: Marco da Cola, a Venetian Catholic intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood transfusion;Jack Prescott, the son of a supposed traitor to the Royalist cause, determined to vindicate his father; John Wallis, chief cryptographer to both Cromwell and Charles II, a mathematician, theologian and master spy; and Anthony Wood, the famous Oxford antiquary.

Each one tells their version of what happened but only one reveals the extraordinary truth. Brilliantly written, utterly convincing, gripping from the first page to the last, An Instance of the Fingerpost is a magnificent tour de force.

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An Instance Of The Fingerpost + The Dream Of Scipio + Stone's Fall
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Product details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (3 Sep 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 009975181X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099751816
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 19,297 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Iain Pears was born in 1955. He is the author of seven detective novels, a book of art history and countless articles on artistic, financial and historical subjects, and three novels, An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Dream of Scipio and The Portrait.

Product Description

Amazon Review

An Instance of the Fingerpost is that rarest of all possible literary beasts--a mystery powered as much by ideas as by suspects, autopsies and smoking guns. Hefty, intricately plotted, and intellectually ambitious, Fingerpost has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose; and, for once, the comparison is apt.

The year is 1663, and the setting is Oxford, England, during the height of Restoration political intrigue. When Dr Robert Grove is found dead in his Oxford room, hands clenched and face frozen in a rictus of pain, all the signs point to poison. Rashomon- like, the narrative circles around Grove's murder as four different characters give their version of events: Marco da Cola, a visiting Italian physician--or so he would like the reader to believe; Jack Prestcott, the son of a traitor who fled the country to avoid execution; Dr. John Wallis, a mathematician and cryptographer with a predilection for conspiracy theories; and Anthony Wood, a mild- mannered Oxford antiquarian whose tale proves to be the book's "instance of the fingerpost" (the quote comes from the philosopher Bacon, who, while asserting that all evidence is ultimately fallible, allows for "one instance of a fingerpost that points in one direction only, and allows of no other possibility").

Like The Name of the Rose, this is one whodunit in which the principal mystery is the nature of truth itself. Along the way, Pears displays a keen eye for period details as diverse as the early days of medicine, the convoluted politics of the English Civil War, and the newfangled fashion for wigs. Yet Pears never loses sight of his characters, who manage to be both utterly authentic denizens of the 17th century and utterly authentic human beings. As a mystery, An Instance of the Fingerpost is entertainment of the most intelligent sort; as a novel of ideas, it proves equally satisfying.


"Anyone who reads this will want to tell their friends about it... This is a novel that combines the simple pleasures of Agatha Christie with the intellectual subtlety of Umberto Eco, don't let it pass by unread" (Sunday Times)

"A fictional tour de force which combines erudition with mystery" (P D James)

"The kind of book that has you reading it by torchlight under the bedclothes. An historical detective story set to rival The Name of the Rose, it provides the rare pleasure of combining an intricate plot with insight into the political intrigues of Restoration England" (The Times)

"Pears brings to life a vibrant 17th-century world...a tour de force" (Daily Telegraph)

"Brilliantly researched and imagined...a remarkable achievement" (Sunday Telegraph)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling combination of history and mystery 18 Jun 2003
By A Customer
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.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simply Fantastic 13 Oct 2005
Where to start?
I suppose the most engaging aspect of this novel is the ability of Pear's characters to utterly and truly bring you in to who and what they are.
I found myself understanding why they acted as they did, why they saw events in a certain light despite being contradicted by others and even developing a bias for them!
The plot clicks nicely in to place with 'the instance of the fingerpost', Bacon's term for the true account. The revelation in the final part of the story touches, for me, the heart. It caused me to think when i read it and i still find myself thinking over what happened even now.
From da Cola's concealment, through Prescott's madness, Wallis' darkness and eventually Wood's love, this novel is a tour de force of how it should be done - a mixture of knowledge, witty observations, humour and how love and hatred can create two entirely different opinions from a shared incident.
Highly recommended.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Three!...dammit...three! 29 Sep 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
What a feat. What an accomplishment! I've just waded my way through Iain Pears' Instance of the Fingerpost and those sentiments are the only way I can describe the feeling of my having got though it. Many were the times I came close to putting this book on the dusty pile of my literary outcasts (in fact there is only one other - 100 days of solitude - but that's another story) but something kept me reading and the last part of the four stories very much made up for it....thankfully. This is an intricate, layered, heavy and often tedious story. No matter what some of the other readers have alluded to - make no mistake - this is not a light breezy read and you will not (I repeat NOT!) be reading it by torchlight under your bedcovers. But - if you start - don't give up. You may well feel like quietly putting the book in the oxfam pile after the first part; you may feel like throwing the book off a balcony or tearing it up in a frenzy after the second; and the third might help you off to sleep....but the fourth culminates these parts into a wonderful tale and - in addition - the writing and effort that have gone into this book really are exceptional. If you haven't bought this book yet - think wisely before you embark. If you have - keep at it.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
I have never read another book quite like this one. It's a big book-yet i read it all in less than three days. i couldn't put it down. Set in the time of the Restoration of Charles II in England, it lyrically blends fact and fiction into a harmonious whole. It does something i've never seen done before in such depth and richness-it takes the viewpoints of four different people about a single happening, and blends them together. Each person adds new facts, so that the reader gradually begins to see the whole picture clearly. And each voice,each new character, seems to come from a different author. It really is as though four different personalities are telling the story. And there is a twist at the end that actually gave me goosebumps. My recommendation is to read this book-now. I haven't read anything this good in years.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Oxford in 1663, just after the restoration of Charles II to the throne, was the intellectual center of England. The country was in ferment after eleven years of rule by Oliver Cromwell and a devastating civil war, and disagreements and passions ran high. Conflicts in religious dogma ranged from the Puritanism of Cromwell to the Church of England, Quakerism, and Catholicism. Political conflicts were obviously connected with the religious conflicts, and intellectual, scientific, and philosophical investigations were calling many long-held beliefs into question.
It is in this turbulent Oxford milieu that Dr. Robert Grove is found dead in his chambers--his servant, Sarah Blundy thought to have murdered him with poison. Sarah, the daughter of a rebel whose whereabouts are unknown, lives with her mother in poor circumstances, barely staying alive, yet they are visited during the mother's final days by important people.
Four men tell the story of Grove's murder, and each explains his own connection, if any, with Sarah and her family. Marco da Cola, a physician from Venice, has come to London to check on his father's mercantile interests but responds to her pleas for help for her seriously injured mother. Jack Prestcott, the son of a man labeled a traitor, is trying to rehabilitate his father's reputation and regain his land. Dr. John Wallis, a mathematician, is also a cryptographer who has worked both for Cromwell and now King Charles II. And Anthony Wood, a young Oxford historian, has employed Sarah in his mother's house and recommended her to Dr. Grove.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and absorbing thriller, it will surprise you
Atmospheric, and historically dense, but gripping as a modern thriller, this book also raises large questions . Well worth reading
Published 14 days ago by Nina Bain
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible book
A good read, very gripping which keeps you wondering till the very end. It is a most unusualy way of constructing a story so a change and something different. Give it a try.
Published 2 months ago by Mrs. V. A. Tyler
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic
This is a classic historical mystery novel based in Oxford. With the different viewpoints, the characters are drawn in minute detail but, be warned, it is a long book.
Published 5 months ago by Nick
5.0 out of 5 stars Fingerpost
I suspect 4.5 is where i would really put this. Cleverly written. Same story looked through the eyes of different people with a sort of truth unravelling as we go along. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Lawman
4.0 out of 5 stars An instance of the finger post
Bought this book on recomendation of a friend. Not really my type but was pleasantly surprised with it. It is an interesting read and well worth getting.
Published 14 months ago by nemisis
5.0 out of 5 stars A Very Rare Gem
This is one of those very rare books I would wholeheratedly recommend to anyone with more than half a brain. Read more
Published 14 months ago by An Avid Reader
2.0 out of 5 stars Sooooo long !!!!
Like a previous reviewer I found it difficult to give a star rating. I first heard of the book on Radio 4's book programme. It's very cleverly done but it was really hard going. Read more
Published 15 months ago by AMT
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth persisting but read Stone's Fall in preference
I chose this as I had been blown away by Stone's Fall by the same author. This was also, in retrospect, a good read, although by definition a single story retold by 4 protagonists... Read more
Published 16 months ago by J Surrey
4.0 out of 5 stars A Heady Brew of Montanist Heresy and Political Skullduggery
An interesting book which I grew to enjoy more as I read on. At first, I found the style rather ponderous and was more than a little put off by lapses in the dialogue from the... Read more
Published 16 months ago by D. Astley-cooper
4.0 out of 5 stars Fooled
I had to check the publishing date of this book, it read so much like a classic. I would not have checked if it had not been for the humour - although it reminded me of the early... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Amazon Customer
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