STONE'S FALL - Iain Pears
STONE'S FALL by Iain Pears is one of those books that just looks intimidating. Even in paperback it's a great big doorstopper of a thing - 597 pages long. One of those books that you wonder if you can risk reading in bed, what with a tendency to doze off and the potential for blackened eyes and badly squished noses. Three books in one in styling, STONE'S FALL tells the story of why John Stone, First (and last) Baron Ravenscliff died, falling from a window at his London home.
Starting out with a funeral in Paris in 1953, the story quickly sets itself in 1909 London, in the immediate aftermath of Stone's death. Matthew Braddock, young, enthusiastic, journalist finds himself in the unlikely position of being hired by Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff ostensibly to write the biography of her husband. In truth, he is tasked to discover the truth of his death. The middle section of the book, set in 1890's Paris switches the viewpoint to that of Henry Cort - long time friend of Elizabeth and Stone, ex-banker, ex-journalist, government informer, Cort is a shadowy figure in the earlier London based investigation, and the middle section sets out to explain why. Everything leads to the final section of the book - Venice, 1867 and Stone's own story, told by him, right up to the time at which he dies.
As each of these viewpoints is effectively a book in their own right, there is a lot of time and space for Pears to flesh out their individual stories and to reveal the elements that go to make up the truth behind Stone's death. Matthew Braddock's investigations, which he undertakes from a starting point of very little information takes him back into Stone's own past as well as that of his wife. He works diligently, but frequently somewhat ineptly to discover the truth behind Stone's life. Along the way facts are revealed, relationships exposed and slowly the details of a complicated personal and business life are revealed. In the second part of the book, Henry Cort takes over the story, opening up in particular, facets of Elizabeth's life that have had an impact on Stone's death. Each of these parts leads inevitably to Stone's opportunity to tell his own story wherein a lot of time is available to discuss motivations and tie up some loose ends. Stone's personal life has definitely had it's own complications, his business life likewise. Unfortunately, of the entire book, the final section is undoubtedly the weakest with some lapses into inexplicable and seemingly unnecessary supernatural elements, and a rushed and somewhat clumsy resolution.
STONE'S FALL is an interesting book because of its structure. Tipping the narrative timeline on its head, starting with a death and then working backwards in such incredible detail isn't a standard approach, and it made for something very different. Within this structure there were parts of the book which were just dazzling and absolutely involving, and parts that were less successful. Unfortunately the less successful was undoubtedly the finale which just got unbelievably clunky, and to be frank, so transparent it was really really disappointing. All in all a book where the journey was considerably more rewarding than the destination.
In his most dazzling and brilliant novel since An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears tells the story of John Stone, financier and armaments manufacturer, a man so wealthy that in the years before World War One he was able to manipulate markets, industries and indeed whole countries and continents. A panoramic novel with a riveting mystery at its heart, Stone's Fall is a quest to discover how and why John Stone dies, falling out of a window at his London home.
Chronologically, it goes backwards - London in 1909, then Paris in 1890, and finally Venice in 1867 - and Stone's character and motivation deepen as the book progresses; in the first part he is almost an abstraction, existing only in the memory of those who knew him; in the second he is a character, but only a secondary one; in the third he is the narrator of the story. A quest, then, but also a love story and a murder mystery, set against the backdrop of the evolution of high-stakes international finance, Europe's first great age of espionage and the start of the twentieth century's arms race. Like Fingerpost, Stone's Fall is an intricate and richly satisfying puzzle, completely engaging on many levels, a triumphant return for one of the world's great storytellers.