Riverhead is marketing the hell out of historian Iain Pears’ first novel, “An Instance of the Fingerpost,” and the media seems turned on by the hype — you’d almost believe this was “the literary thriller of the year.” Don’t be surprised if midway through this sprawling and seemingly endless tome, however, you feel like suing the publishers (and certain critics) for fraud. If this book is a thriller, then I’m Edgar Allan Poe.
For Pears and certain other moderately talented writers, history provides a sturdy hook to hang a shabby coat upon. It gives a sense of legitimacy — even intellectual clout — to writers such as Caleb Carr, whose novels are trotted out with Umberto Eco-ish pretensions. (In Carr’s case, it’s the jacket designer and the marketers who are the real artists, gulling readers into thinking it must be literature because Theodore Roosevelt figures as a character, there’s an Alfred Stieglitz photograph on the cover and it’s over 400 pages long.) Pears, as it happens, is no Caleb Carr. He’s much more boring than that.
“An Instance of the Fingerpost” is a “Rashomon”-like tale that deconstructs a murder in 1660s Oxford and the trial that leads a young woman to be hanged for a crime she didn’t commit. (Or did she?) Every section is narrated by a different character — although each tends to sound much the same as those that came before — and each narrator reevaluates the version of events you’ve just read, giving his spin on what is true, each assuring you that he alone is telling you the truth. The problem is that you’re getting multiple versions of a story that Pears hasn’t convinced you to care about in the first place. The narrators are a motley collection of pompous gasbags, and Pears’ approach is to present each rambling section as if we’ve just stumbled on some actual 16th century historical documents — every word is supposedly both fascinating and important.
Pears may be a better writer than Carr, but he’s sanctimonious where Carr tends to be overly manipulative. The point of his novel seems best summed up when one of the ponderous speakers tells us, “We are all capable of the most monstrous evil when convinced we are right, and it was an age when the madness of conviction held all tightly in its grasp.” This is a noble sentiment, to be sure, but after a century of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, it’s not particularly revelatory. And when a book is as long as this one (691 pages) and the “thriller” hook is this uncompelling, you might find yourself losing patience faster than you can say “The Name of the Rose.”