Book review: Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears

Jonathan Cape, 596pp, £18.99Review by ALLAN MASSIE

SOMETIMES YOU GET A NOVEL which is purely enjoyable. Stone's Fall is such a book. It's a mystery, a novel of character and a recreation of the past, all in one. There are passages which echo Buchan and Edwardian writers such as the outrageously inventive E Phillips Oppenheim, while the novel is of a complexity worthy of Wilkie Collins. It's in no sense a pastiche, though the recreation of the late Victorian and Edwardian world is done with a scrupulous exactness.

At the centre of the novel is John Stone, Lord Ravenscliff, financier of genius and armaments king. In fact he is dead when the novel begins, having fallen from a high window. There is mystery here, for Stone was afraid of heights, so it seems improbable that his death was the accident it was said to be. Was he pushed or did he jump?

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The questions occur to the first narrator, a young journalist. Stone's widow, a glamorous and wonderfully seductive woman with a past, employs him to carry out an investigation prompted by a clause in the dead man's will which enjoins his executors to find his illegitimate child "whom I have never previously acknowledged". Nobody knows anything of this child, not even whether it is a boy or a girl. So we are launched on a quest, which, the reader suspects, may prove to be a red herring.

There are mysteries within mysteries, as the journalist discovers. Why was news of Stone's death concealed for several days? Why is a shadowy figure connected to the Foreign Office involved? Were Stone's finances as secure as they seemed? Why was a young man in the accounts department of his shipyard in the north-east accused of theft and dismissed? Is Stone's death in some way linked to the murder of a woman who posed as a fortune-teller and practised blackmail? And just what is the role of the widow, with whom, not surprisingly, the journalist falls in love? Can he trust her?

The second narrative goes back in time to the late 19th century. The new narrator is that shadowy Foreign Office figure, now revealed to be a government spy – a revelation which comes as no surprise. In this section we learn more about the remarkable past of Lady Ravenscliff, now revealed as a young woman on the make and a star of the demi-monde. There are murky episodes – espionage, sexual depravity murder and high, if unsavoury, politics, but the centrepiece of this section is a financial crisis, a run on Baring's Bank which threatens the primacy, and indeed, solvency, of the City of London. Can a crash be averted – Pears is fortunate in the timing of his novel's publication – and what part is John Stone playing in the affair? You may be assured that it is a decisive one, if not precisely what it seems at the time.

Part III, narrated by Stone himself, goes still further back, to a visit he made to Venice as a young man. There is a love affair which promises well, but in novels of this nature, promises are usually and rightly deceptive.

This visit to Venice is the decisive moment in Stone's life. He stumbles on the technical invention on which his fortune will be built, and his liaison has consequences which will lead to his death more than 40 years later. The use of Venice as a fictional location in which nasty things happen has become hackneyed. It is a tribute to Pears's uncanny skill that he makes even this setting and the sinister events there seem fresh – even if "fresh" is not exactly the word to apply to the unpleasantness.

The assurance and invention with which this novel is written are alike remarkable. Pears manages his complicated structure with a confidence and dexterity possible only to a master of the craft of fiction. It is a novel which frequently and daringly challenges credibility, skating on the thinnest of ice, and yet meets that challenge successfully every time. It may not go as deep as Pears's masterpiece to date – which I hold to be The Death of Scipio rather than the bestseller, An Instance of the Fingerpost – and as an example of the sort of fiction which invites the willing suspension of disbelief, it is outstanding. It is as cunningly put together as Wilkie Collins's two great novels, The Moonstone and my own favourite The Woman in White, and every bit as riveting. Better, more profound novels may be published this year, but I shall be surprised if there is one that offers more complete enjoyment. Stone's Fall is a novel to sink into and to read and read until your eyes are tired. Utterly absorbing and a rare delight.

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