A Historical Mystery Abuzz With Voices Not to Be Trusted

AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST

By Iain Pears

Riverhead Books

691 pp., $27

Untrustworthy narrators and murder mysteries have gone together like Watson and Holmes ever since Robert Browning penned the words, "There's my last duchess on the wall, looking as though she were alive."

With "My Last Duchess," Browning created the unreliable narrator - violating the implicit trust between protagonist and reader. After all, if it's right there in black-and- white, it must be true. Right?

Mystery fans love reading between the lines, and getting to match wits against a lying scoundrel is almost more fun than figuring out whodunit.

With his engrossing 11th novel, "An Instance of the Fingerpost," British writer Iain Pears gives readers the thoroughly enjoyable task of sorting out just how far they can trust four witnesses to a murder in 17th-century Restoration England. In some cases, that's about as far as you could throw the book - which weighs in at a hefty 691 pages.

The facts are simple: An Oxford professor has been poisoned, and his servant girl (who, it is whispered, was having an affair with him) has confessed to the crime. But the underlying tangle involves conspiracies reaching back almost a decade to Oliver Cromwell.

Unraveling the puzzle involves cryptography, rudimentary forensic science, obscure Christian theory, and a distinguished cast involving such real-life luminaries as Robert Boyle, "the Father of Chemistry;" John Locke, the philosopher; and John Thurloe, right-hand man to Cromwell.

(Pears has thoughtfully provided a time line and list of dramatis personae for those of us who think the Civil War refers solely to the war between the states.)

Just as impressive as the feat of juggling historical and fictional characters (a device used most recently in Caleb Carr's "The Angel of Darkness") and more than one unreliable narrator, is the authenticity of his setting.

Everything from Oxford's meals (apparently there's a long and distinguished tradition of lousy college food), the beginnings of modern medicine and chemistry, and the oppression of women and religious minorities is discussed in a believable and authoritative way.

Squeamish readers may wish he were less realistic when it comes to a couple of medical experiments and a particularly "ooky" autopsy, but even this proves central to the plot.

The only fly in the soup comes near the end, with a religious "miracle" that appears out of nowhere. It's unclear if Pears expects readers to take this at face value or if it's a piece of self-delusion on the part of the narrator.

That said, "An Instance of the Fingerpost" works both as quality historical fiction and a mighty fine mystery.

* Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor's staff.

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