Iain Pears, “Stone’s Fall”

I guess for me, the term “financial thriller” is an oxymoron. There’s a lot to admire about Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall. And, considering the legion of fans Pears has accumulated in his career, there must be a lot to enjoy, too. But he is a writer I’ve never really warmed up to (something ponderous in his style, I think) despite the subject matter that should have been appealing. Art history murder mysteries should certainly be right up my alley, but I only got through one.

Why, then, all 608 pages of Stone’s Fall? For one thing, because I didn’t know there were 608 of them — major drawback of the e-reader. And then, of course, the checkout line dilemma: once you have committed a substantial amount of time to a book (or to Register 7), should you switch books/lines? I don’t think I really understood how long this novel was or how uncongenial until I was about halfway through. By then I had invested so much time that it seemed dumb not to finish it.

Mind you, I mean “uncongenial,” not bad. Stone’s Fall came recommended and it’s certainly well-constructed and thoroughly researched. Pears employs three narrators, going back in time to explore the mysterious death of a major English entrepreneur in 1909. Our first narrator is one Matthew Braddock, a London journalist who is plucked from his coverage of crimes to investigate a peculiar clause in the will of Lord Ravenscliff. The plot is almost like a nautilus shell, with the death (a mysterious fall from an open window) as the chamber where we enter. Ravenscliff (born John Stone) specializes in weapons. OK, kids, it’s 1909 — what are we going to do with cannons now?

But World War I, actually, is a red herring in this story, because Pears takes us backward to a financial crisis in Paris in 1890. This narrator, Henry Cort, is … you might call him a fixer. You might equally call him a spy only, being the narrator, he justifies himself as running an exchange of information. He gets involved with Stone — and Stone’s ravishing wife Elizabeth. Cort’s portion of the story was the most trying for me because I could not get excited about the prospect of a bunch of banks failing. In an author’s note Pears explains that he was well launched on his novel before the financial crisis hit; the material did all see quite familiar. (Capital reserves, etc. etc., in 1890 as in 2008.)

Venice was creepy 150 years ago

The final section of the book takes us back to Venice in 1867, and John Stone’s early days in business. Here is where he sets the patterns for his later ruthlessness and amorality. Every last loose end gets tied up, including the identities and functions of several shady secondary characters. The best part, I found, was the atmospheric business; you know, the light on the lagoon, the labyrinthine alleys, the peeling stucco. Time, perhaps, for Death in Venice?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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12 Responses to Iain Pears, “Stone’s Fall”

  1. Annie says:

    Have you read ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’, which is Pears’ other attempt to work in this way and most readers seem to think a far better one? Again, you have three sections, each of which forces you to consider assumptions you’ve drawn in early parts of the book in a new light. I enjoyed’ Stone’s Fall’ more than you did, but I would still prefer ‘Fingerpost’. Perhaps you might try it when you’ve had time to get over this experience.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Yes, Annie, there’s something wrong with your escape reading when it points you in the direction of Thomas Mann. I tried “Fingerpost” a while ago and was not won over, but I’m going to an actual physical book store this afternoon and will take another look.

  3. Jenny says:

    I didn’t like Fingerpost, either. I agree — his style is like elephants dancing. It seems to me to shout, LOOK AT ME BEING HISTORICAL. I’d rather re-read O’Brian!

  4. cousinsread says:

    I’ve read great reviews of this, but it just seems so daunting. Like elephants dancing? – Love it!

  5. carolwallace says:

    You two are funny! Anbolyn, read a few pages in the middle before you commit, for sure. And, yes, Jenny — it might be time for another Maturin/Aubrey reunion.

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  8. L.S. Bassen says:

    Has anyone else noticed, re STONE’S FALL, that if Stone didn’t want his wife/daughter to find out, why did he specifically put the quest in his will?

    • carolwallace says:

      Good point. I read this so long ago that I can’t remember the details but it does seem that putting the quest in legal terms is kind of waving a red flag. Pears may have done it that way just to set the plot rolling, of course…

  9. L.S. Bassen says:

    Hi, Carol. So glad to read your post. I’ve admired Pears’s writing from the start, delighted in the longer less genre novels. So this plot-moving glaring character error jarred me. I was surprised that none of the reviews ever even noted it. I’m trying to figure out a way to write to Pears for some explanation.

    • Led says:

      L.S.: Stone put the bequest in his will months before his fateful meeting with Lady Boninska. At that time, he was aware only of the existence of the child and had no real reason to keep it from Elizabeth, whom he legitmately loved (albeit in an overly idolized fashion) and was otherwise honest with. The purpose of the bequest at that time was simply to put the brakes on the execution of the will in the event of his untimely death to allow Henry Cort and his cronies at Barings to clean up the evidence that Stone was building ships on the sly for the government. Had Stone been thinking rationally after he met with Boninska, he presumably would have removed the bequest. Of course, had be been thinking rationally, he would never have killed himself so abruptly and would have considered the very strong possibility that Boninska was lying to him about the identity of the child to inflict as much pain on him as possible.

      Boninska’s unreliability (which Pears underscores and highlights as clearly as possible, as well as lampshading the fact that Boninska had access to the necessary background info on Elizabeth via Bonsinska’s prior contact with Xanthos) is something that no reviewer has seemed to pick up on. I think it’s fair to say that the only incestuous relationship confirmed in the novel is the one between the government and industry. What a bleak, bleak picture this book ultimately paints about the moral corruption at the heart of government and industry, despite good intentions, and the inaccessibility of truth. Consider who likely killed Boninska (the book never says for sure) and his relationship to her. Cold. He also killed the man who rescued him as an infant, in a foreshadowing of Stone’s inability maintain control. And Stone’s corporate frankenstein monster (also the result of a grave robbery) ultimately rebels and kills him.

      Suffice it to say I loved this book. I love how all the intricate pieces fit together like a puzzle as in a Dickens story but without any certainty and without any consolation. In that sense — the sense of being the “un-Dickens” — it reminds me of Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx.

      • carolwallace says:

        Thank you for this — I clearly did not read the book with your care, and I appreciate your response. Also think your notion of Pears as the “un-Dickens.” That explains the general discomfiture one feels when reading him, I think.

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