More sinister than Dexter
AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST by Iain Pears, Picador pounds 16.99
Sunday 07 September 1997
Pears takes Holmes' "science" of detection back to the origins of the scientific method, taking as his theme the nature of evidence itself, and exploring its scientific, theological and historical functions. The book's title is taken from Bacon's Novum Organum, the cornerstone of the Scientific Revolution, emphasising that philosophy literally points the way in this labyrinthine narrative of plot and counter-plot, where truth is shown to be a function of doctrine, and where each narrator worships his own Baconian "idol". Instead of retarding narrative progression, the extended metaphysical ruminations actually serve to map out the intellectual landscape of the period and demarcate the horizons of probability for each narrator's interpretation of events.
The novel is self-consciously learned and serious, yet there are moments of sly humour. While many passages might have been lifted from obscure theological treatises, light relief is offered by what could easily have come from yesterday's Daily Mail.
With pedant-defying scholarship it bludgeons the reader into accepting its authenticity by the very weight of historical detail. We take it on trust that our ancestors believed that "a pipe of tobacco every evening" was beneficial for consumptives, or that the procedures of alchemical method are being followed by the 17th-century equivalent of the forensic expert. On the whole, historical recreation is achieved with subtlety, providing "Diversion as well as Instruction". This is partly a consequence of thoughtful characterisation; for example, the first narrator is depicted as something of an innocent abroad, therefore his own exploration of the unfamiliar allows the backdrop of 17th-century Oxford to be erected unobtrusively. At times, however, this does start to read like the properties buyer's notes for the latest TV adaptation. For whom if not a potential director is the following nugget of information designed? "My bow to equals [was] perfectly executed , with just the right balance between the extended left leg, and the graciously elevated right arm." Such moments of historicist camp are rare, for in general each narrative rings true to both character and period, and thankfully refrains from the cod archaisms employed by some historical novelists.
This combination of erudition with ingenuity makes for satisfying reading. Particularly commendable is the fact that truth or common sense in the novel do not necessarily conform to modern beliefs or values. There are no Back to the Future-type leaps into knowledge, while the positive characters are not blessed with fully-formed liberal sensibilities. It is a testament to the author's skills as an historical novelist that one narrator is allowed to believe in unicorns, while another can exclaim "I must cut up a cat and see for myself" without losing either our trust or our sympathy.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 #NotGuilty: Second Oxford student writes of brutal rape by two men who then threw her in a bin as part of campaign against victim blaming
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
- 5 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils