by Robert WeibezahlMay 2009
Iain Pears' peerless historical intrigue
At 600 pages, Iain Pears’ new book may seem daunting, if not excessive in length, for what is, in essence, a historical mystery. But as anyone who has read his dazzling (and even longer) An Instance of the Fingerpost knows, Pears is one of the true masters of the “impossible to put down” narrative. From the first page of Stone’s Fall, the reader is immersed in a remarkably well-plotted story, rich in detail, elegantly told.
The Stone of the title is William John Stone, a London industrialist who plummets to his death from the window of his London townhouse one night in 1909. A methodical, fabulously successful, self-made man, Stone was decidedly not the suicidal type, and his suspicious death has been ruled accidental. Enter Matthew Braddock, a young journalist—and the first of three narrators in the novel—who has been hired by Stone’s widow, purportedly to write a biography of the great man, but really to find out the identity of a child that Stone fathered but never acknowledged until leaving the mysterious heir a sizeable legacy in his will.
The widow, Elizabeth, a beautiful and fascinating woman significantly younger than her husband, becomes the lynchpin of a marvelously entangled plot that stretches back 40 years. As he begins to investigate, Braddock—like most men who encounter her—cannot help but fall under Elizabeth’s spell. But as he digs deeper, Braddock discovers Elizabeth is a woman with a less than respectable past. Braddock’s fruitless search for the missing heir, meanwhile, leads him deep into the details of Stone’s far-flung business dealings, a many tentacled fortune built on the manufacture and sale of warships and armaments. With the First World War just a few years away, Europe’s nations are quietly stockpiling weaponry, and Stone has been the beneficiary of the continent’s collective anxiety.
Braddock is led up many a blind alley, sometimes intentionally, as he encounters a nefarious cast of unlikely erstwhile associates of the solidly bourgeois dead man, including a psychic, a communist agitator and a British spy. It is this undercover agent, Henry Cort, who picks up the second third of the story, taking it back to Paris, 1890, when Stone first met Elizabeth and, along with Cort, played a central role in rescuing the British banking system from the brink of collapse. Cort, like everyone in this book, has his own motives, and it is he who will belatedly provide the key document that resolves the mystery.
Stone’s Venetian account eventually ties all the seemingly fractured details of his life together, revealing not only the source his wealth and the identity of the mystery child, but also the circumstances behind his inexplicable death. With a series of plot masterstrokes, Pears reintroduces characters from hundreds of pages before, and everything crystallizes into a perfect, if utterly shocking, conclusion.
Much as An Instance of the Fingerpost expertly exploited the political turmoil of Restoration England to propel its ingenious plot, Stone’s Fall beautifully captures a latter-day Europe, on the cusp of modernity, yet still rooted in the nationalistic obstinacy that would lead to not one horrific war, but two. Stone alone among the characters embodies a coming trans-nationalism, what we today call globalism, with a business acumen that puts profit before everything else. Or so it would seem, until we hear his own side of the story, and witness in his love for Elizabeth—as well as some of the other surprising choices he makes—an unexpected humanity. Still, to his death, Stone’s raison d’être remains first and foremost money, and the wise contemporary reader can’t help but catch the cautionary irony found in the words of Henry Cort: “Belief is as good as reality, where money is concerned.”
Despite its girth, Stone’s Fall is a book that thoughtful readers will want to pick up this summer. It is a completely rewarding work of fiction, an entertainment with substance. Even after a highly satisfying finish with all the loose ends neatly tied, I was sorry that it had to end.
Read Robert Weibezahl’s most recent short story, “Identity Theft,” at www.BeattoaPulp.com.