Saturday, June 19, 2010

Iain Pears weaves a mystery about banking and corporate finance—in the nineteenth century.

I have enjoyed Iain Pears’s art-historical mysteries and his first longer historical fiction, The Instance of the Finger Post. The new novel looked intriguing, but I hesitated to start it because of its size. And even when I did start reading it, I wasn’t sure I had the stamina. But Pears hooked me before too long, and I am now ready to rank it among the best historical thrillers I have read.

Stone’s Fall

Iain Pears’s new novel, Stone’s Fall (594 pages, Spiegel & Grau, $16) takes us into the world of high finance, corporate greed, and British espionage in the years leading up to the First World War. Pears sets his novel in England, France, and Italy, moving back and forth among them as his characters do, and he employs several different narrators, who in Gothic novel fashion, draw us deeper and deeper into what becomes a riveting personal narrative before its close.

As the novel opens, Matthew Braddock is hired by a wealthy society widow, Lady Ravenscliff, to investigate circumstances surrounding the death of her husband John Stone, Lord Ravenscliff, who had somehow fallen from his second story window some weeks before. Lady Ravenscliff wants to know how this accident could have happened—her husband was afraid of heights and never went near an open window—and she also wants Matthew to discover a formerly unacknowledged child to whom Stone leaves a fortune in his will.

Matthew’s investigations, which take him far out of his comfort zone as a newspaper reporter, confront him with the realities and deceptions of high finance. For one thing, he is surprised and confused that the financial state of Stone’s vast corporate empire is kept secret from investors and the public at large. It seems that the financial well-being of Stone’s companies has been undermined by a series of massive withdrawals that cannot be easily explained. Matthew is confused about the finances, and he has to bring in some friends from the newspaper to help him read the columns of figures; but not only is something secretive going on in the drama of the financial records—and Pears makes this unpromising material deeply dramatic—but also the ways in which financial markets are manipulated by the holding back of crucial news leaves Matthew in awe.

As Matthew investigates these matters for Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, he also begins to fall in love with her. This is complicated and unrewarding in the end, but it compels him into the complex background of the greatest financial empire of the age. The more he discovers, of course, the more wary he becomes of the woman who has hired him. And when the first part of the novel ends, he has satisfied her in one way—he knows where the missing money has been going—but he is in no way clear about who the mysterious child might be.

It takes two more narratives to tell the whole story. One is by John Cort, a British spy who also seems close to Elizabeth and who knows something about her background. He tells a story about a penniless orphan who makes her way in the world by pretending to be someone she is not, and who ends up marrying John Stone, one of the wealthiest men in the world. Cort tells of Elizabeth’s checkered career, but he also makes it clear that Elizabeth always says that John Stone was the love of her life. His story gets close to the heart of some secret about these personal affairs and their relation to the finance of World War I.

For the full story to emerge, however, it takes one further narrative, that of John Stone himself. In this fascinating narrative, Pears gives us a romance of financial wheeling and dealing. The story takes us back to Venice in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it tells the story of love, betrayal, and the kinds of deceptions by which a huge financial empire could get its start. This section also reorders our understanding of everything that has come before; and not only does Pears unravel every financial complexity, but he also makes sense of the deep personal discomfort that has been brooding in the novel all along.

Stone’s Fall is a great novel to stick in your suitcase and take with you for summer reading. It’s long enough to keep you going for several days, and it has enough historical and cultural atmosphere to make you imagine you are on a foreign journey even if you go no further than the local pool. I recommend it with enthusiasm.

Iain Pears

Get it at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

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