An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998)

by Iain Pears

An “instance of the fingerpost,” according to Francis Bacon in Novum Organum, is “the true and inviolable” way of reaching understanding when something has varying interpretations. In Iain Pears’s historical mystery of that name, four different narrators give their conflicting takes on a murder. An instance of the fingerpost is called for.

The setting is 17th-century Oxford just after the restoration of the English monarchy. Many of the characters were leading scientists and philosophers of the time, and many of the events actually occurred. The poisoning victim, Robert Grove, was really an Oxford don; the accused murderer, a young serving woman named Sarah Blundy, is a fictitious character based on a woman who was tried and hung in Oxford.

A Venetian student of medicine who was in England to resolve some complications with his family’s business relates the first account. Subsequent narrators react to him and add their own details and opinions. Contradictions build until the mystery seems insoluble. Pears does manage to finally explain everything, although all readers aren’t likely to accept his portrayal of Sarah as a later-day messiah.

Extremely literate and well-written, An Instance of the Fingerpost is filled with the events and attitudes of the time.  Medical experiments, philosophy, religion, and politics are all part of the mix in a book that is as much about searching for truth as about searching for whodunit.


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