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.)
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?