AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST. By Iain Pears . Riverhead Books: 694 pp, $27

Alfred Mac Adam teaches comparative and Latin American literature at Barnard College and Columbia University

Readers of Iain Pears' 17th century murder mystery might prep for the experience by delving into Gilbert Burnet's "History of My Own Times," Samuel Pepys' "Diary," Clarendon's "The History--True Historical Narrative of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England," Sir Thomas Browne's "Urne Burial," Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" and Francis Bacon's "Novum Organum Scientarum"--the source of Pears' title and the epigraphs that introduce three chapters. Those too impatient for such extended foreplay should simply dive headfirst into this fascinating leviathan.

The miscellaneous reading list above provides the increasingly hypothetical reader with information about the politics, personalities and daily life of England in the 17th century (Burnet, Clarendon, Pepys), how that age viewed death and immortality (Browne), what its notions of psychology were (Burton's melancholy is what we call depression) and how Pears thinks we ought to approach a 17th century mystery (Bacon). An excellent tale of murder, "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is also a careful reconstruction of cultural history. In fact, the epigraph that opens the novel is a truncated passage from the second chapter of Cicero's "On Oratory," originally a homage to the power of orators but here transformed into a glorification of history as a source of truth, and the fingerpost, a 17th century signpost, refers to discoveries we make during research that, reconsidered, lead us from first assumptions to correct conclusions.

The murder that moves the plot in "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is that of Richard Grove, a genuine fellow of New College, Oxford during the period covered by the novel. Grove is a tedious, flatulent boor, a churchman who refuses to help the ailing mother of his former servant, Sarah Blundy. When Grove is found dead and his death ascertained to have been caused by poison, suspicion falls on Sarah, her motive being revenge. There are other suspects, but Sarah seems the most plausible because of her fiery nature, circumstantial evidence and false testimony.

Her crime is not merely murder but "petty treason": the murder of a master by a servant, a crime tantamount to patricide and punishable by burning. Lost in a flurry of political and sexual politics is the possibility that others may have had better motives than revenge, especially pure rage and blind ambition. But hovering over all the accusations leveled against Sarah Blundy is the heavy hand of destiny: She must die, though even those responsible for executing her cannot understand the complete implications of her death. What seems a matter of political or personal expediency is a sacrifice, as Sarah herself states while in a mystical trance: "In each generation the Messiah suffers until mankind turns away from evil."

In the 17th or the 20th century, murder is a crime, the only crime appropriate for genuine detective literature, and sleuths of any age must sift through the evidence, avoid red herrings, unravel the plot (in this case, a story and a conspiracy), which has been confabulated by the murderer to perpetrate the crime and an escape, and ultimately rewrite that plot in order to catch the criminal. Both sleuth and malefactor are surrogate authors; the reader, especially in Pears' book, is a surrogate detective.

Bacon's "Novum Organum" is not a manual for would-be private investigators, but its catalog of errors and fallacies, which Bacon terms "idols," is an admirable guide for any detective. Pears uses three of Bacon's idols: Chapter 1 opens with the Idols of the Market-Place--words, abstractions like truth, beauty or honor that we will die for but whose meaning we can't define; Chapter 2 begins with the Idols of the Cave--innate assumptions, the idea that we can believe what our senses tell us; Chapter 3 is introduced by the Idols of the Theater--the erroneous conventional wisdom we receive in school and unconsciously parrot. The Baconian detective distrusts his senses, resists his fondest theories, questions preconception and prejudice and subjects every aspect of his education to skepticism.

Although Pears uses Bacon for the intellectual structure of his novel, he could have used two rather different models for the actual structure of his book. He might, improbably, have used Robert Browning's huge verse novel "The Ring and the Book" (1868-69), the story of a murder in Renaissance Italy whose characters make individual statements about the case in 10 dramatic monologues. The more likely precursor, Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone" (1868), does something similar, consigning the story not to a narrator but to a succession of characters, each of whom corrects the one before. "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is divided into four parts: the first narrated by a Venetian Papist, who is in England to retrieve some compromising papers and to baptize the king, Charles II; the second told by Jack Prestcott, a madman seeking to prove his father did not betray King Charles I; the third by John Wallis, geometrician and cryptographer for the royalists and Oliver Cromwell; the fourth by Anthony Wood, Oxford antiquarian and historian, who justifies Cicero's praise of history: He identifies the murderer and amasses the evidence for resolving the other mysteries of the story.

Grove's murder links the four narratives and is embedded in a labyrinth of politics, greed, bigotry, insanity and superstition. We are in England during the 1660s, the early years of the Restoration. Charles II, son of Charles I (executed in 1649), becomes king in 1660 but, despite hopes for amnesties and equanimity on both sides of the Commonwealth-Monarchy division, there is great discontent in England: fear (justified) that the monarch would convert to Catholicism and impose his religion on the nation and fear (again justified) that royal aspirations to absolutism would strip all power from both Parliament and people. During the 1660s, therefore, the murder of an Oxford professor would have political implications because so many secret deals, involving clerics and academics, had been made to bring about the Restoration without precipitating another bloody civil war that a violent crime would automatically suggest betrayal and retribution against Monarchists. Pears capitalizes on this both to confuse the reader about motive and to re-create the era.

The antiquarian urge to reconstruct places and customs haunts every page of his novel, but Pears never loses sight of his mystery. He does dare to introduce the scientist Robert Boyle, charter member of the Royal Society, and the young John Locke, intellectual prime mover of the Glorious Revolution that swept Charles II's brother and successor James II off the throne in 1688. Pears uses Boyle to dramatize the struggle of the new science against theology, while Locke is a mysterious young physician interested in the experiments with blood transfusion being carried out by Oxford scientists. Before the 1660s, doctors had no more social status than barbers, but the new university-trained physicians would also be gentlemen rather than laborers. Chronicling social change is one of Pears' strengths, as the transformation of artists in England after 1680 from blue-collar workers to professionals is one of the subjects of his 1988 book "The Discovery of Painting: The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England, 1680-1768."

Pears has used his experience of the art world to great advantage in his other detective novels, especially "The Bernini Bust" (1992). A different species of detective writing than "An Instance of the Fingerpost," it is satiric, reduces character to stereotype--grasping, boorish Americans, clever if clumsy English, worldly wise Italians--and deploys lots of humor. Like "Fingerpost," it uses a double conceit in which the genuine is passed off as a fraud and the fraudulent is palmed off as genuine.

This ingenious use of paradox reappears in "An Instance of the Fingerpost," but in a different key. Here we have two deaths: one a murder and the other an execution. Our problem is to discern motive. Who is the real victim: the corpus delicti or the alleged perpetrator? Why is it no one will believe the murderer when he confesses his crime? Another peculiarity of "The Bernini Bust" reverberates in this new novel, whose characters are much more complex and true to life: The hypotheses the detectives devise do not always fit the crimes they're investigating; that is, detectives make mistakes.

Pears accomplishes something quite extraordinary in "An Instance of the Fingerpost." He elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art. His novel will inevitably invite comparisons with Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," but Eco's equally long book is really an intellectual's revenge on moralists, in which a medieval monk, who considers humor sinful, refuses to copy Aristotle's treatise on comedy and is willing to kill to destroy the philosophical justification of comedy. Pears' story is more gritty; he writes closer to the genuine tradition of detective fiction and uses the historical setting not because it is quaint but because that age, except for technology, is so much like our own: Like us, the 17th century English are torn between science and religion, idealism and cynicism. In presenting the contradictions of the age, Pears proves that the past does have a future.

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