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Book review / University challenge

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, Cape, pounds 16.99
A whole-page cover ad in The Bookseller; rights sold all over the world; the specialist bookshop "Crime in Store" warning collectors to reserve a copy in advance: this is unprecedented hype for a historical thriller. But his publishers clearly expect Iain Pears's new book to break out of the genre slot and take its place with serious fiction, on the level of The Name of the Rose. And, with its weighty 17th-century science, An Instance of the Fingerpost may also latch on to the surprise popularity of scientific history tapped by best-sellers such as Longitude. Can it live up to all these expectations?

Emphatically, yes; it can. This is a sprawling, rambling novel and if its tension is sometimes sacrificed for esoteric byways, that's the whole pleasure of it, really: to amble round coffee-houses and eavesdrop on John Locke, to consider the benefits of dried dog-excrement as eye-ointment or to observe the first gory attempt at a blood transfusion. The occasional element of Boys' Own mind-boggle (Gosh-did-you-know that Tunbridge Wells was once the seat of government?) just adds to the fun.

The setting is Oxford in 1663, an era when the university briefly awoke from its usual snooze for some genuine debate between the old certainties and the new, experimental science of Galileo and Harvey, between supporters of the defunct Commonwealth and the vengeful restored monarchists. Following the mysterious death of a New College don, a servant girl is accused of his murder and subjected to all kinds of scurrilous accusations of sedition, witchcraft and whoredom during her trial. The question of her guilt forms a complex narrative that demands a lot of time and thought, as it re-creates at leisure an extraordinary world full of ciphers and quarrels, politics and poisons, religion and necromancy.

Questions about the nature of knowledge and evidence are fundamental to the construction of the narrative as well as to the theme. The story is recounted by a visiting Venetian, a wild young student, the code-cracking professor of geometry and that endearing and muddled historian, Anthony Wood, steadying his nerves alternately in The Feathers and the Bodleian.

The four-hander isn't new - it was most famously used by Lawrence Durrell, and Kurosawa's film Rashomon took the same approach to the story of a murder - and it needs careful handling if the reader is to follow the thread yet not be bored by repetition. But Pears manipulates the technical problems with skill, differentiating the voices, packing in bags of crinkum- crankum atmosphere. Most of the characters are taken from the real world of the 17th century, many of them from the group of scholars and scientists who formed the beginnings of the Royal Society.

The book is a deeply scholarly thriller, but with the learning worn lightly and all the elements of the plot eventually clicking together as smoothly as Sir Samuel Morland's 17th-century computer. But I would take issue with Pears's Venetian physician in one instance. The despised British medical usage of powdered worms perhaps had a practical base. Dawn French, in her TV foodie series Scoff!, was taught survival techniques by an SAS expert. One of his recommendations was to dry worms on a convenient rock and pound them up. The resulting powder is extremely high in protein, which was often lacking in the diet of the unfortunate 17th-century patient.