Review: Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears

 Stone’s Fall is a novel that defies the reader’s expectations throughout.  Upon finishing it, my first reaction was to flip straight back to the beginning and start again.  It is rare for me to choose anything from the crime or mystery genre, but this was a truly fascinating read.  Divided in three parts, each section is narrated by a different character.  Moving backwards through time, the story shifts closer and closer to the enigmatic John Stone, a man of many secrets.

While reading, I was vividly reminded of Citizen Kane and The Third Man, this tale has all the marks of crime noir.  However, while Stone’s Fall was reminiscent of these other works, it is a unique and intricate mystery that lingers in the mind long after the final sensational climax. Although the ultimate end is known from the very beginning, in many ways Stone’s Fall is three novels in one, with the tension remaining high throughout.

It begins in 1953 when the elderly journalist Matthew Braddock attends the funeral of Madame Robillard, one-time Lady Ravenscliff.  Joining him there is the young lawyer Harold Whiteley who has a parcel of papers to give him.  At long last, Matthew is going to be given the answers to a mystery that changed his life forty years previously.  As Braddock notes from his old age, nobody remembers Lord Ravenscliff any more, otherwise known as John Stone, the incredibly wealthy financier and business.  However, when in 1909 Stone fell out of a window to his death, his beautiful widow Elizabeth commissioned the young and naive journalist Matthew Braddock to write his biography.  Naturally, that was not the true purpose and Matthew is dragged into a world of corporate greed, espionage and international diplomacy.  Matthew is both highly resourceful and utterly at sea in a world that he does not understand, defenceless against the beguiling Lady Ravenscliff.

Paris, 19th century

In the background has been Henry Cort, the shadowy and frightening representative of His Majesty’s Government.   In the second section, he takes up the tale from beyond the grave.  Clever and far less diffident than the unworldly Matthew, Henry explains his first beginnings in spycraft back in 1890 and how helpful the young courtesan Elizabeth had been to his ascent.  Indeed, with Stone dead before the first section, a secondary character in the second, Elizabeth’s story is at the heart of the novel.

She is a fantastic creation, we meet her at her full power in her middle age but in Cort’s narrative, she becomes a heroine in the tradition of Balzac (yes, I studied French literature at university).  She makes her mark and transforms from courtesan to unfortunate Hungarian countess by transforming the financial success of the men Cort is investigating into sex.  It is a murky world, the double-dealing and financial warfare and Elizabeth is able to hold her own.  I liked that Cort’s interest in her is never forced to be prurient or creepy, she is far more exposed in her emotional confessions to him than any physical revelation could.  Cort is writing to explain Elizabeth’s character to Matthew and through him to us, simply undressing her would never have done that.

Venice, 19th century

It is perhaps a weakness of the third section that being set in 1867, Elizabeth can take no part.  To have her cougar credentials in 1909 and thoroughly discombobulate Matthew, she cannot be alive as John Stone finally speaks for himself.  Finally hearing his voice after so much build-up was in some ways an anti-climax – after hearing such a diverse range of opinions on Lord Ravenscliff , how could he possibly meet such divided expectations?  Also, hearing any ‘origin story’ for someone who has become a larger-than-life figure has the potential for disappointment, for me it is the main reason that the prequel trilogy of Star Wars was so dull, nothing was ever going to adequately explain Darth Vader.  Stone recounts his youthful trip to Venice where he met Cort’s parents, creating a powerful impression of a decaying city and the rag-tag bundle of misfits who are the English ex-patriot inhabitants.

I was not entirely sure how seriously to take the introduction of the supernatural – Venice has always been a tempting a venue for the occult, I remember how disturbed I was by Don’t Look Now.  I did feel by that point that certain strands of the narrative had gotten a little unruly and that Pears had to resort to ‘the dark other’ to draw them back in.  And indeed, it was truly masterful that he managed to pull so many loose strands together.  Details that seemed unimportant in the first and second sections are explained in the final chapters as Stone draws together his story at the end of his life.  For something that we knew would happen from the very beginning, Stone’s fall still manages to be a breathtaking surprise.

What I appreciated most of all about the book was that it is crime fiction for intelligent people.  It is often a dense read, there are many characters and the reader cannot afford to forget a single one of them.  I frequently found myself rereading paragraphs to double-check that I had caught everything.  I was left with a fair few questions by the end, one of the foremost was if the story had been written in a linear fashion, how well would it have worked as a novel?  If it had begun with John Stone’s trip to Venice, carried on to Henry Cort’s adventures in Paris and finished with Matthew in London, would it have had the same impact?  Would John Stone’s final words have carried the same weight if we had not spent nearly six hundred pages wondering what had led him to his fate?  What is certain is that Stone’s Fall is an intricate and engrossing novel which leads the reader deeper and deeper into the unsettling life of John Stone, ultimately allowing them to make their own conclusions about the man’s true nature.

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Stone's Fall by Iain Pears
Published by Vintage on June 3rd 2010
Pages: 597
ISBN: 0099516179

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3 thoughts on “Review: Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears

  1. I loved it too, but found it all really sad. A twisty read that grabs you early on and keeps you reading, but I’m not sure that there is either a true hero or a true villain, unless you count the villainess who gave birth to Elizabeth?

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