|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on August 22, 2016 at 9:45 PM|
#6: An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. This is probably the longest mystery in my Top 20 but it passes the Lonesome Dove test (and I love Lonesome Dove): did I want it to end? I did not - it is surely the longest page-turner mystery that I personally have read. Set in England in the 17th century, An Instance of the Fingerpost is both an exciting historical novel illuminating a time none too familiar to most Americans, and a very fiendish and satisfying mystery. There is a murder early on and the main narrator, a wannabe scientist, applies very primitive forensic science in an attempt to solve the crime. Along the lines, the narrator is in a scientifc race against time to perfect the medical technique of blood transfusion before Sir Christopher Wren (a real historical personage, as are many of the characters). This is much more exciting than I have made it sound, though I wasn't necessarily rooting for the narrator, who seemed to me a bit self-important.
Then Pears suddenly does something which has certainly been done before - he switches narrators and it becomes clear that at least one, if not both, of the narrators, is unreliable. This cherished storytelling tactic goes back to The Moonstone and The Arabian Nights but it hasnt been done better in a mystery than AIOTF. As with any of the other top mysteries on my list, I will have to engage in at least some spoiling to convey what is awesome about how Pears pulls this off. Trust me, and go read it unspoiled, then come back.
The second narrator is a wealthy merchant whose timeframe of the crime is a little offset from the first narrator. At first, his account seems more businesslike and trustworthy, though increasingly he seems to focus on characters who seemed minor to the first narrator, in particular a disliked young woman whom the businessman believes is a witch. While the reader respects that this accusation would have been thought less crazy in the 17th century, it still seems a little crazy. But the second narrator goes even more off the rails, expressing bizarre opinions and taking heinous actions which he busily justifies according to his own worldview. But then it all makes sense when we reach the third narrator, a cleric highly placed in the government who reveals that the second narrative was written from the asylum! But can the third narrator be trusted, either? For all of his sober, even Machiavellian tone, the third narrator has somehow formed the laughable idea that the first narrator, far from being a pretentious dabbler, is a swashbuckling assassin bent on bringing down the government. The reader begins to realize that the original murder is only a minor component of the mystery, and the main mystery is the real identity and plan of the first narrator. It takes the fourth narrative, by a character seen as incompetent and dreamy by the earlier characters, to reveal the truth (we think) and clarify the cause of the murder and the real machinations behind the larger mystery.
Categories: Vladimir's Top 20 Mysteries