STONE'S FALL

Written by Ian Pears

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung


STONE'S FALL
Vintage
RRP: £7.99
Released: 3rd June 2010
PBO
Iain Pears latest novel is one of his large, historical non-sequence works, using the same multiple voice style as AN INSTANCE OF FINGERPOST, or perhaps (as this is set in the late nineteenth century) Wilkie Collins’ THE MOONSTONE. It is divided into three parts, and strangely but ultimately conclusively, the three parts are in reverse chronological order – the oldest comes last in the story telling sequence. 

The puzzle, which no single character appreciates, is why a Victorian business baron might have been murdered or killed himself, when his will implies he has a lot to live for. Specifically the will names a daughter who has never been acknowledge before by the man, John Stone, now Lord Ravenscliffe. Ravenscliffe died when defenestrated from his London home – there’s the first suggestion of Stone’s Fall, a tumble out of a window.

It will not be the only meaning, though. Stone’s widow, a woman much younger than her husband, hires Matthew Braddock to look into his background, attempting to discover clues to the missing daughter, and it is Braddock’s account of his search that occupies nearly the first half of the book. Braddock’s hiring as a private investigator comes as a godsend to an otherwise unsuccessful journalist, but while he discovers much about Victorian industry and company formation, he discovers little about Stone’s death, but it becomes clear he is not very bright and perhaps could not have been expected to do so.

For instance, at a company meeting where different factions are fighting for control of Stone’s business empire of armaments works he realises nothing until a friend with him explains what is going on as he does not have a business background, though later he realises what pressures Stone himself must have experienced to build up his trusts, or their possible mortal threats. He does come across one name, though – Henry Cort.

Cort seems to have been stalking Stone. It is Cort, though, that begins and narrates the second section which explores the way the international banking system was manipulated in late 1880s. It lead to the first Baring Bank crash (which got mentions at the time that Nick Leeson engineered their second in our own day), but was apparently planned to bring down the British government and so weaken it that Britain would have been defeated without a war, if one clever British agent working on the continent had not realised what was going on and taken express trains back to London. 

Who was that Cort? Cort gets his background explained in the third section, written by Stone himself, giving an account of events in Venice in 1867. For Stone was not always the successful business baron – he had to build up his empire by finding patents, finding manufacturers, and most of all finding customers, when he was not exploiting mad inventors. Find a country under threat and you have a customer; find or even put two countries in opposition and a successful arms manufacturer and dealer has two customers. Help those customers find loans or credit and your arms dealer is in line for even bigger profits.

A few years after Stone, the real Sir Basil Zaharoff, agent of Nordenfeldt and Vickers, became known as the “merchant of death” for his abilities thus. Stone’s manuscript wraps things up by revealing that his “fall” occurred long before his death, and was of a completely different order. Along the way, children will have been born, put aside, taken up, and identified, and because names can be kept or lost as the generations change, so character names can reappear in the different generations while referring to different individuals. That is quite apart from characters who wish to change their names and disappear, or characters who wish to seem someone else for nefarious purposes, or people whose names change when they receive their honours. 

STONE’S FALL is a little dry. Some sad soul with too much time on his hands has constructed a detailed entry on Wikipedia explaining many of the historical references, although the article does not point out that “Henry Cort” was the name of the Georgian ironmaster who invented the puddling process but saw his career disappear in his partners’ bankruptcies and patent squabbles, the sort of events which would re-appear in John Stone’s career.

There are many other angles to this novel, though, and possible echoes. Take the oblique references to Cort in the first section: he may have been shadowing John Stone, he may have been his enemy, though it is unclear, but he seems to play a role like that of Gil-Martin in James Hogg’s early nineteenth-century novel, CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER, possibly leading Stone on to worse offences, as if any literary work of or about the nineteenth century should weave itself into the others. Literary and historical echoes are minor details but (along with falls, names, business deals, international diplomacy, banking scandals, all with repercussions) make STONE’S FALL something more elaborate, a work to be explored.                               
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