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B : decent Victorian (and capitalist and espionage) fun
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "This is a massive and well-made book, one ultimately better at characterizing money matters than human affairs." - Julia Holmes, Entertainment Weekly
- "Each section is told from a different person's point of view. With each the focus moves closer to Stone; with each the pace, pitch and style of the narrative alter radically. The structure is an audacious one and not without its pitfalls. (...) It is regrettable, then, that the urge to contrive a final twist to the tale proves too great for Pears to resist. This sprawling, unconventional, occasionally dazzling novel ends with an unconvincing and unnecessary denouement which serves only to undermine the foundations of the elaborate edifice he has worked so painstakingly to create." - Clare Clark, The Guardian
- "Stone's Fall is daunting only in its length; though bogged down in parts, it is wonderfully accessible and entertaining. (...) Stone's Fall is an entertainment in the best sense: thrilling, compelling, ambitious and smart. It demands slow reading (and even rereading) as the many pieces of this intricate puzzle masterfully come together." - Carmela Ciuraru, The Los Angeles Times
- "But it is Elizabeth who incorporates, in her person, the true relations of capital in the 19th century. The great courtesans make an epoch in financial history for this reason. Once all property can be turned into money, it can also be turned into sex (a much more powerful passion even than avarice). (...) Pears is looking to expose not Elizabethís body, which is never presented, but her heart, or rather to unravel that shred of virtuous emotion that she has preserved intact through her hard and perilous existence. Pears does this both badly and well" - James Buchan, The New York Times Book Review
- "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. (...) The assurance and invention with which this novel is written are alike remarkable. (...) Better, more profound novels may be published this year, but I shall be surprised if there is one that offers more complete enjoyment. (...) Utterly absorbing and a rare delight." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman
- "At just over 600 convoluted pages it is a pretty heavy piece of light reading, but it certainly entertains, it even informs after a fashion, and it is altogether a generous, triple-decker slab of upmarket historical hokum." - Phil Baker, Sunday Times
- "His new novel masquerades as an upmarket historical thriller, with a suitably serpentine plot, but the writing is so tongue-in-cheek that it is impossible to take the story seriously. (...) Pure literary pastiche, from start to finish, and when Pears drops his guard, as when a character in 1890 talks about being 'risk averseí, the nature of his confidence trick becomes embarrassingly plain. But who said pastiche could not be fun ? (...) If the plot is meretricious, the incidental detail is excellent throughout. (...) The novel is above all a romp, albeit an exceptionally intelligent and entertaining one." - David Robson, The Telegraph
- "Fans of Pearsís humdinger of a historical thriller An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997) will not be surprised to learn this is also a juicy mystery with lashings of period detail and recondite information: by the end of the book most readers will know enough about the construction of torpedoes, for example, to have a go at making their own. (...) Sadly, the final section, set in Venice in 1867 and narrated by Stone, doesnít quite fulfil expectations. Pears, having virtually mythologised Stone, does not manage to create a narrative voice for him that suggests an individual of particular ability or insight. Still, there are plenty of other fine characterisations. Pears has the good journalistís knack of making high finance enthralling -- he can take Robert Pestonís job any day -- but it is his interest in the peculiar effects that money has on human beings that makes him a good novelist." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph
- "Braddock is a listless investigator. Much of this first part is preoccupied by his study of the extent of Stone's business empire. He often complains how boring he finds it - is forever repairing to the pub for a pie and a pint and wishing he was canoodling with Lady Ravenscliff instead. Readers will probably agree. (...) There is barely any sex, not much action, but an awful lot of fastidiously plotted intrigue and deft period atmosphere." - Helen Rumbelow, The Times
- "As before, his male characters are credible and complex, but his women are less well drawn -- especially Lady Ravenscliff, boundlessly mutable, but more plot device than person. And the story's Russian-doll structure may annoy impatient readers. Nevertheless, there is much to admire and savour here: witty, laconic dialogue; a galloping pace, particularly in the first and third narratives; the author's silky, fluid prose; and above all the concluding passages, which detonate a series of surprises as poignant as they are grim." - Daniel Mallory, Times Literary Supplement
- "A marvel of skillful agglomeration, the novel propels us backward in time to illuminate one man's rise and fall. The trajectory may be familiar, even predictable, but this particular tragedy encompasses the entire history of late mid-19th- to early-20th-century capitalism and provides enough romance and intrigue to fuel a dozen operas. (...) Pears is an exuberant writer who cannot resist a digression whether describing an incidental character or the invention of the torpedo. But his narrative chatter -- charming or trying, depending on your mood -- somewhat diminishes the major characters, whose individual voices are often lost in the general din." - Anna Mundow, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Though its first section is set in 1909 London, Stone's Fall has many of the trappings of a Victorian thriller, beginning with a suspicious death and including a less than straightforward will that includes a legacy to a child whose existence no one knew of -- and the ultimate dénouement is worthy of any Victorian fiction.
Appropriately, too, the novel jumps back, rather than forward in time, burrowing itself into the period it is a piece of, its second section set in 1890 Paris, its third in 1867 Venice.
It is this unraveling of the various mysteries by looking to the past that is the gimmick of Pears' novel, and part of the interest the book does hold is in seeing just how he proposes to pull that off; it's not an easy trick, after all.
It's also hard to pull off without a bit of trickery, and that is one of the problems with the book, as Pears plays a bit too much with smoke and mirrors, selectively introducing pasts in each section but avoiding revealing the larger picture until the end -- leaving the reader feeling strung along a bit more than many might care to be.
(It also doesn't help matters that the third is, by quite a margin, the weakest part of the novel.)
Pears also finds himself unable to
do without a slightly cumbersome framing device, as the book in fact opens in 1953 and ends with a letter from 1909 that puts the last pieces into place.
(There's also a cover letter written in 1943, to a document penned in 1900 ... all a bit awkward, to say the least).
For all that, Stone's Fall offers quite a lot of good entertainment, the presentation making for an unusual kind of three-in-one novel, with three fairly distinct stories.
The opening section, set in 1953, is narrated by Matthew Braddock.
He attends the funeral of the former Lady Ravenscliff, Elizabeth, and learns that with her death he stands to receive a package from a Henry Cort, who had died a decade earlier.
The package, of course, contains the answers to some decade-old mysteries -- but before Braddock reveals the contents he narrates his own side of events back in 1909, when he first came to know Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was married to Baron Ravenscliff -- John Stone -- back then, and Braddock makes her acquaintance shortly after Stone took a fatal tumble out of his window.
A young journalist, Braddock is invited to take the position of very well-paid official biographer of the man -- but that's only the cover story: he is, in fact, hired to find the child mentioned in Stone's will, a child whose existence Elizabeth had never heard of.
Stone was a wealthy industrialist -- a proto-capitalist, "a magician with money", and "perhaps the most ingenious financier in the world".
He figured out early on that: "you do not have to own a company to control it"; holding a significant but small percentage of shares would do.
But, as Braddock finds out, he was also a risk-taker whose company was, in some senses, a fragile house of cards.
And so the newspapers were convinced -- by one Henry Cort, as it happens -- not to run a story about Stone's deadly fall immediately for fear of the markets reacting badly to it.
And, as it turns out, the complication in the will of a legacy left to an unidentifiable person helped leave the firm in a convenient limbo, making it much more difficult for outsiders to determine its true health.
Stone's Fall is a business and finance novel, too.
Pears enjoys describing the capitalist games of the times -- even more so in the second, Parisian part, which involves the threat of an immense credit crunch and over-extended banks (and nations) brought close to their knees -- and there are obvious points of comparison to present-day events (exactly a century after the opening section ...).
Matters are a bit simpler and simplistic back in the day, but Pears obviously means to show the fundamentals (and the actors ...) are still the same.
Braddock has his suspicions about Stone's fall out that window, and while he has trouble finding any trace of evidence of him having any surviving children he does find some suspicious business activity.
And there's always the distraction of the charming Elizabeth, whom he -- like everyone -- is quite taken by.
But Elizabeth also has an unusual past -- and she also seems to be keeping some present-day secrets.
The conclusion of the first section is more like a Conrad-novel than a Victorian one, and Braddock (and the reader) leave it only a bit wiser.
But the mysterious but obviously influential Henry Cort comes out of the shadows at the end of it, and it is Cort's story that makes up the second section of the novel.
Set mainly in Paris in 1890, it describes how he came to be in the position he is -- and his relationship with both Stone and Elizabeth, who both play prominent parts here as well.
Cort is a somewhat bored young banker whom the Foreign Office have an eye on.
They enlist his help, and he proves very capable.
Just as Stone is a magician with money, Cort comes to understand that: "Information is a commodity; it is traded like any other, and there is a market for it" -- and, as it happens, he's a very good middleman in regards to this particular good.
Elizabeth is also in Paris in 1890, a mysterious woman new to the city who has made quite a splash in high society, establishing herself as: "the Nana of her age" -- but made for that age of business, and with much higher aspirations.
She and Cort also share some history, and he's among the very few who know of her rather sordid past.
Stone, too, is in Paris -- and soon taken by Elizabeth as well.
There are several crises to deal with, but the biggest is one that threatens the world economy.
As Stone sums up the possible consequences:
Bank rates will rocket, institutions will founder, savers will be ruined, companies starved of funds, trade will be crippled.
All of which sounds very familiar .....
The conditions at the time allowed for easier solutions than nowadays, and Pears lets personality play a significant role, but, as far as financial thrills go, it is enjoyable enough.
Yet while some questions have been answered by the end of this section, at least in part, more mysteries still remain -- notably the identity (or existence) of the child mentioned in the will, as well as the reason for Stone's fatal fall in 1909.
The third part of the novel tells Stone's story, centered around the time he spent in Venice as a young man, in 1867.
While there he made the acquaintance of an architect who we know to be the father of Henry Cort.
He also met an engineer working on a remarkable invention, a torpedo -- a man who lacks what Stone has: any business sense.
Once again there is some sex, some violence, some financial gamesmanship, and quite a bit of human tragedy.
Pears does allow considerably more melodrama here, but more of the pieces fall into place.
Still, he has to rely on an explanatory letter to tie up the last loose ends -- and while that dénouement is a doozy, presented like this it can't help but feel a bit tacked on.
Certainly -- and unfortunately -- it doesn't suffice to justify the leaps backward the novel has taken; leave the letter until the end again and the rest of the book might almost just as well have been presented in strictly chronological order.
At eight hundred pages, Stone's Fall is a long book.
The three separate sections do stand practically as separate books, each recounting a different adventure (while also fairly nicely (if very lightly) connected), but the fact that the last is the most disappointing -- the most Victorian and melodramatic, and without any of the potential global disasters that hover so nicely ominously over the events of the first and second sections -- makes for something of a let-down.
The adventures of the first and second parts are more enjoyable, but the mystery -- and the awkward, semi-backward way the answers are brought to the fore -- feels too forced.
Pears tells a good action story, and even does the financial aspect quite well (with Braddock close to innumerate, to make it easier on the readers), but there are also a few too many central characters to focus on.
Worse, the characters are only on the stage for parts of the novel: Braddock essentially disappears after the first part (in which Stone is little more than a memory and Cort a shadowy figure very far in the background), and Cort doesn't really figure in the last.
And while Elizabeth (or whatever her name is ...) is a more prominent presence in the first two parts, she is a shape-shifting figure that adapts to the background (or rather: foreground), making her less than entirely satisfactory as a central figure as well.
An entertaining light read, Stone's Fall also proves a bit more frustrating than it should.
But it's certainly adequate and enjoyable beach-reading fare.
- M.A.Orthofer, 15 April 2009
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Other books by Iain Pears under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
British author Iain Pears was born in 1955.
He attended Oxford and has written numerous books.
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© 2009-2015 the complete review
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