In Oxford, England, in the spring of 1663, Dr. Robert Graves is found dead in his rooms at New College. It is soon determined that arsenic had been added to the bottle of brandy left on the steps leading to Grove's chambers, and that the arsenic had killed Grove. Sarah Blundy, Groves's former servant and alleged mistress, is arrested, tried and hanged for the crime. Since she admitted her crime in court, there is no question of her guilt.
Or is there?
If I had to sum up An Instance of the Fingerpost in one phrase, it would be, "Nothing is ever as it seems." In using four different narrators to tell his story, Iain Pears weaves webs of deception, using omission and outright lies to confuse the truth.
"Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice" is the first narrator, telling his tale without reference to any other story. Each subsequent narrator, however, comments on and 'corrects' the stories that went before. The reader must act as detective, determining who is lying, who is telling the truth, determining, in fact, what the truth is. Unlike many mysteries, there is no final summing up by a reliable storyteller, no detective explaining how he solved the crime, no amateur sleuth putting the police into the picture.
An Instance of the Fingerpost also differs from most mysteries in its length. Each narrator takes close to 200 pages to tell his tale – these are highly verbal 17th century gentlemen, each with an axe to grind as well as a tale to tell. Yet, for all its length, the book is deeply satisfying: complicated, compelling, confusing and as messy as life itself. More, it is a keeper because it is a mystery to reread, to see if clues that were perhaps hidden before spring to life. I know I will reread it purely to see if my first conclusion about what happened holds up.
For the reader looking for a truly mysterious – in more than one sense of the word – novel to read, I cannot recommend An Instance of the Fingerpost too highly.