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A return to the form that launched Iain Pears onto bestseller lists around the world: a vast historical mystery, marvelous in its ambition and ingenius in its complexity.
In his most dazzling novel since the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears tells the story of John Stone, financier and arms dealer, a man so wealthy that in the years before World War One he was able to manipulate markets, industries, and indeed entire countries and continents.
A panoramic novel with a riveting mystery at its heart, Stone’s Fall is a quest to discover how and why John Stone dies, falling out of a window at his London home.
Chronologically, it moves backwards–from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890, and finally to Venice in 1867– and in the process the quest to uncover the truth plays out against the backdrop of the evolution of high-stakes international finance, Europe’s first great age of espionage, and the start of the twentieth century’s arms race.
Like Fingerpost, Stone’s Fall is an intricately plotted and richly satisfying puzzle–an erudite work of history and fiction that feels utterly true and oddly timely–and marks the triumphant return of one of the world’s great storytellers.
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Iain Pears is the author of the bestsellers An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio and a novella, The Portrait, as well as a series of acclaimed detective novels, a book of art history and countless articles on artistic, financial and historical subjects. He lives in Oxford, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Paris, March 1953.
The Church of Saint-Germain des Pres, at the start of what was supposed to be Spring, is a miserable place, made worse by the drabness of a city still in a state of shock, worse still by the little coffin in front of the altar which was my reason for being there, worse again by the aches and pains of my body as I kneeled.
She'd died a week before I arrived. I hadn't even realised she was still alive; she must have been well into her eighties, and the hardships of the past few years had weakened many a younger person. She would not have been impressed, but something approaching a real prayer for her did come into my mind, just before I struggled back onto the pew. Age has few compensations; the indignity of discomfort, the effort to conceal constant nagging pain, is most certainly not one of them.
Until I read the Figaro that morning and saw the announcement, I had been enjoying myself. I was on a farewell tour; the powers-that-be had scraped together enough foreign currency--called in a few favours at the Bank of England even--to allow me to travel. My last visit to the foreign bureaux before I retired; to Paris. Not many people could do that sort of thing these days--and would not until foreign exchange restrictions were lifted. It was a little mark of respect, and one that I appreciated.
It was a fine enough service, I thought, although I was not an expert. The priests took their time, the choir sang prettily enough, the prayers were said, and it was all over. A short eulogy paid tribute to her tireless, selfless work for the unfortunate but said nothing of her character. The congregation was mainly freshly scrubbed and intense-looking children, who were clipped around the ear by teachers if they made any untoward noise. I looked around, to see who would take charge of the next round, but no one seemed to know what to do. Eventually the undertaker took over. The body, he said, would be interred in Pere Lachaise that afternoon, at two o'clock, at 15, Chemin du Dragon. All who wished to attend were welcome. Then the pallbearers picked up the coffin and marched out, leaving the mourners feeling lost and cold.
"Excuse me, but is your name Braddock? Matthew Braddock?"
A quiet voice of a young man, neatly dressed, with a black band around his arm. I nodded, and he held out his hand. "My name is Whitely," he said. "Harold Whitely, of Henderson, Bailey, Fenton. I recognised you from newsreels."
"Solicitors, you know. We dealt with Madame Robillard's residual legal business in England. Not that there was much of it. I am so glad to meet you; I was planning to write in any case, once I got back."
"Really? She didn't leave me any money, did she?"
He smiled. "I'm afraid not. By the time she died she was really quite poor."
"Goodness gracious me," I said, with a smile.
"Why the surprise?"
"She was very wealthy when I knew her."
"I'd heard that. But I knew her only as a sweet old lady with a weakness for worthy causes. But I found her charming, on the few occasions we met. Quite captivating in fact."
"Yes, that's her," I replied. "Why did you come to the funeral?"
"A tradition of the firm," he said with a grimace. "We bury all our clients. A last service. But, you know--it's a trip to Paris, and there's not much opportunity of that these days. Unfortunately, I could get hold of so little currency I have to go straight back this evening."
"I have a little more than that, so would you care for a drink?"
He nodded, and we walked down the Boulevard Saint-Germain to a cafe, past the grim buildings blackened with the filth of a century or more of smoke and fumes. Whitely--formerly Captain Whitely, so he told me--had a slightly annoying tendency to grip my elbow at the difficult bits to make sure I did not trip and fall. I didn't mind, although the assumption of decrepitude was a little annoying.
A good brandy; she deserved no less, and we drank her health by the plate glass window as we sat on our rickety wooden chairs. "Madame Robillard," we intoned, several times over, becoming more garrulous as we drank. He told me of life in Intelligence during the war--the time of his life, he said wistfully, now gone for good and replaced with daily toil as a London solicitor. I told him stories of reporting for the BBC; of D-Day, of telling the world about the Blitz. All yesterday, and another age.
"Who was her husband?" I asked. "I assume he is long dead."
"Robillard died about a decade ago. He ran the orphanages and schools with her."
"Is that why there were all those children in the church?"
"I imagine so. She started her first home after the war--the first war. There were so many orphans and abandoned children, and she somehow got involved with them. By the end there were about ten or twelve schools and orphanages, I gather, all run on the very latest humanitarian principles. They consumed her entire fortune, in fact, so much so that I imagine they will all be taken over by the state now."
"A good enough use for it. When I knew her she was married to Lord Ravenscliff. That was more than forty years ago, though."
I paused. Whitely looked blank. "Have you heard of Ravenscliff?" I enquired.
"No," he said. "Should I have?"
I thought, then shook my head. "Maybe not. He was an industrialist, but most of his companies disappeared in the Depression. Some closed, others were bought up. Vickers took over some, I remember. The lone and level sands stretch far away, you know."
"Nothing." I breathed in the thick air of cigarette smoke and damp, then attracted the waiter's eye and called for more drinks. It seemed a good idea. Whitely was not cheering me up at all. It was quiet; few people around, and the waiters were prepared to work hard for the few customers they had. One of them almost smiled, but managed to restrain himself.
"Tell me about her," I said when we were refilled once more. "I hadn't seen her for many years. I only discovered she was dead by chance."
"Not much to say. She lived in an apartment just up the road here, went to church, did good works, and outlived her friends. She read a great deal, and loved going to the cinema. I understand she had a weakness for Humphrey Bogart films. Her English was excellent, for a Frenchwoman."
"She lived in England when I knew her. Hungarian by birth, though."
"Apart from that there's nothing to say, is there?"
"I suppose not. A quiet and blameless life. What were you going to write to me about?"
"Hmm? Oh, that. Well, Mr. Henderson, you know, our senior partner. He died a year ago and we've been clearing out his papers. There was a package for you."
"For me? What is it? Gold? Jewels? Dollar bills? Swiss watches? I could use some of those. We old age pensioners . . ."
"I couldn't say what's in it. It's sealed. It was part of the estate of Mr. Henry Cort . . ."
"You knew him, I assume?"
"We met, many years ago."
"As I say, part of the Cort estate. Curious thing is that it carried instructions that you were to be given it only on Madame Robillard's death. Which was very exciting for us. There isn't much excitement in a solicitor's office, let me tell you. Hence my intention to write to you. Do you know why?"
"I have absolutely no idea. I scarcely knew Cort at all, and certainly haven't even cast eyes on him for more than thirty years. I came across him when I was writing a biography of Madame Robillard's first husband. That's how I knew her as well."
"I hope it was a great success."
"Unfortunately not. I never finished it. The reaction of most publishers was about as enthusiastic as your own was when I mentioned his name."
"It was a long time ago. I went back to being a journalist, then joined the BBC when it started up, after the war. The first war. When did Cort die?" Curious how, the older you get, the more important other people's deaths become.
"When I get back, send me your package. If it's valuable, I'll be glad to get it. But I doubt it will be. As far as I remember, Cort didn't like me very much. I certainly didn't like him."
And then we ran out of things to say to each other, as strangers of different generations do. I paid and began my old man's routine of wrapping myself up, coat hat, scarf, gloves, pulling everything tight to keep out the bitterness of the weather. Whitely pulled on a thin, threadbare coat. Army demob, by the look of it. But he didn't seem half as cold as I was just thinking of going outside.
"Are you going to the cemetery?"
"That would be the death of me as well. She would not have expected it, and probably would have thought me sentimental. And I have a train at four. When I get back I will dig out my old notes to see how much I actually remember, and how much I merely think I remember."
I took my train from the Gare de Lyon that afternoon, and the cold of Paris faded, along with thoughts of Madame Virginie Robillard, formerly Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, as I went south to the greater warmth of a Mediterranean spring.
She remained in the back of my mind wherever I went, whatever I saw, until I returned to my little house in Hampstead to dig out my old notes. Then I went to visit Mr. Whitely.
When I became involved in the life and death of William John Stone, First (and last) Baro...
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Book Description Spiegel & Grau, 2009. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0224081799
Book Description Spiegel & Grau, 2009. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0224081799