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Literature / An Instance of the Fingerpost

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An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997) is a historical mystery novel written by Iain Pears.

The story is set in 1663 at and around Oxford University, where lecturer Robert Grove is found poisoned. The narration is provided by the accounts of four of his contemporaries as they relate their actions and the events surrounding the murder, 20 years after it happened.

This novel provides examples of:
  • All Women Are Lustful: Anthony Wood says this outright in his account, but this is really the belief underlying all the characters' attitudes towards Sarah. (Except maybe Wallis, who doesn't really seem to care one way or the other about her morals as long as she can be used in his elaborate plot to foil an imaginary assassination attempt.)
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  • As the Good Book Says...: Dr. Wallis uses excerpts from The Bible quite liberally. There is also a scene in which two men make a contest out of throwing quotes at each other.
  • Clear My Name subverted since Prescott's father actually is a traitor and Prescott is crazy
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Marco da Cola died after his return from Crete; his brother Andrea took on his identity while in England.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Dr. Wallis' dream about Matthew being murdered by Marco da Cola is loaded with sexual imagery: the party, the knife, their physical positions...
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Marco da Cola, a Venetian, also eloquent in Latin
  • Evil Jesuit "Marco"; it's hard to tell to what extent he qualifies as evil.
  • Gayngst: Dr. Wallis agonizes over his desire for his servant, Matthew. He gets well into his narrative before he can bring himself to admit the nature of his feelings.
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  • Historical Fiction
  • Historical Domain Character: Unsurprisingly considering the genre there are quite a few: Of the four viewpoint characters mathematician John Wallis, historian Anthony Wood were actual people. A third, Jack Prescott, is in part based on the life of Richard Willis. A dramatis personae at the end of the book lists the more important recurring historic characters.
  • Inter-Class Romance: Between Anthony Wood, gentleman historian and Sarah Blundy, serving girl. Despite generally good intentions on both their parts, it ends in horribly unhappy fashion, when she is successfully framed and executed for murder; an outcome in part dictated by the socially-stratified, religiously-bigoted and generally-irrational age in which they live.
  • The House of Stuart: The narrative takes place during the early years of Charles II's reign.
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  • Literary Allusion Title: The title, as well as short epigraphs for each part of the narration, is taken from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum Scientarum.
  • Messianic Archetype: According to Wood's interpretation of the events, Sarah Blundy is a reincarnation of Jesus.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Sarah Blundy
  • Mistaken for Spies: Dr. Wallis believes Marco da Cola to be a spy/assassin.
  • The Mole: Jack Prescott's narration relates much of his attempts to clear his father, who is assumed to have betrayed his fellow members of the Sealed Knot to Oliver Cromwell.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: All of the narrators have pretty unenlightened attitudes towards Sarah because they think she is promiscuous
  • Perfect Poison: (averted) The poison used is a rather large amount of arsenic and what the reader is told of the victim's death doesn't suggest a lack of dramatic physical reactions. The physicians performing the autopsy find residues fairly easy, too.
  • Plea Bargain: The guilty plea earns a 'merciful' death by hanging, before being burned (in contrast to just the latter).
  • Rape as Drama
  • The Rashomon
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Sarah thinks that Marco intends this when treating her mother and commenting that he will take his pay later he doesn't, since he's a celibate priest, and so when Sarah strips in front of him, he ends up thinking of her as an evil slut. (She had good reason to think this way, since the last guy who did her a favor and told her to worry about payment later really did expect sex in return.)
  • The Spymaster: John Thurloe
  • Unreliable Narrator: All four of them, though for different reasons.
  • Values Dissonance: All four narrators are very much examples of their age, and hence see things very differently than would modern Europeans. In particular, Sarah Blundy comes across to them as a villanous harlot, despite in many ways being perhaps the most benevolent and honest character in the story.

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