Thursday, June 18, 2009
39. Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears
Do not be afraid of this book's 800+ pages! Because it is a page-turner.
It begins in a cemetery, at the funeral of one Mme. Robillard. Matthew Braddock, who knew her under another name, in another time, in another place, is approached by a representative of her lawyers' who informs him that the firm is holding a parcel intended to be given him only upon Mme. Robillard's death. But it will be another 300 or so pages before we learn the contents of that parcel. First, Braddock must tell us the story of how he met Mme. Robillard, or Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, as she then was.
That story begins in London, in 1909, when Braddock she hires Braddock to investigate the mysterious death of her husband, financier and arms dealer John Stone, Lord Ravenscliff. As he delves into the case, he finds complex layers of intrigue and, not incidentally, falls in love with the widow Ravenscliff. Naturally enough, neither she nor Ravenscliff, nor any of their colleagues, is what they at first appeared to be. So dramatic and compelling and complete a story is this narrative that, at the end, I found that I had forgotten that parcel and was startled to find that I was only one-third through the book.
The second part moves back in time, beginning in Paris in 1890, and is the story of one Henry Cort, who had become known to Braddock during his investigations. Another mysterious figure, to say Cort was an intelligence operative for the British government is to understate the case. His parcel contains his narrative of his own life, and how he came to his position, and how he knew Lady Ravenscliff, before she was a lady at all.
It also contains certain documents of John Stone's, documents that had gone missing at his death. These form the third part of Pears' novel, and go back even further in time, to Venice, 1867, where Stone's enterprise begins. And it is here that we learn the real history of Elizabeth, and the reason and manner of Stone's death. It will, I think, be a surprise.
Those familiar with Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost will, however, not be surprised at his ability to take multiple strands of narrative and weave them into a complicated, yet understandable, whole. Like the best Victorian triple-deckers, Stone's Fall is full of surprises, twists and turns, but it hangs together logically. Even more than this, Pears creates characters who engage our sympathy, even if their actions do not. Like real people, their psychology is not simple, and their motives are mixed. Some do good for bad reasons, and some act badly for good reasons. Some act for no reason, but emotionally. Just like you and me.