I first read An Instance of the Fingerpost when it came out in 1997, and it’s safe to say that it was like no crime novel I’d ever read before. It was also one of the first historical novels (other than classics) I’d read and kindled a love in me for the genre. I felt this book gave me a better understanding of the beating emotional heart of the 17th century than any of the non-fiction I’d read. Majestic in scope, in the midst of a gripping murder mystery, we learn about the development of enlightenment thought; the political conspiracies of the civil war and Restoration; military history; medicine; science; religion; superstition and prejudice; not to mention love and suppressed sexuality!
The structure of this book is extraordinary, utilising what is known as the Rashomon effect (after a Japanese film): the same events (in this case a murder) are viewed from the perspective of different characters, each of whom gives a different account. This gives us not one unreliable narrator, but four! The resulting twists are incredible. Several major paradigmatic shifts each turn the plot on its head, and each time you think you have the plot worked out, you are astonished again. Ultimately, it is left to the reader to decide the answer to the fundamental question at the heart of the book: what is truth?
An Instance of the Fingerpost taught me much about how to write history: voice, scene, wearing research lightly, as well as the use of real historical characters in a work of fiction. I also drew many lessons from it in how to use the prism of a murder in a small town to explore wider historical issues and a much bigger political conspiracy. One day I would love to attempt something as ambitious as this in terms of structure.
If you haven’t read it, I cannot recommend it enough. It’s a masterpiece and the book, more than any other, that encouraged me to write.