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Originally published Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Stone's Fall:" a weapons maker falls from grace

Novelist Iain Pears' "Stone's Fall" is the mesmerizing story of the downfall of an immensely powerful English arms manufacturer in the tumultuous years before World War I. Pears reads Monday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Iain Pears

The author of "Stone's Fall" will read and sign books at 7 p.m. Monday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333),


"Stone's Fall"

by Iain Pears

Spiegel & Grau, 800 pp., $28.95

"Stone's Fall" is the best kind of fiction: a powerful combination of storytelling and ideas. The former keeps us mesmerized; the latter prompts us to reflect. It's a luminous example of how writers can blur, with great success, the porous barrier between "popular" and "serious" literature.

The book's author, Iain Pears, is a British art historian and journalist-turned-novelist. He's best known for 1997's "An Instance of the Fingerpost," a major best-seller and (like this new one) a novel of ideas disguised as an historical mystery.

"Stone's Fall" interlaces the lives of three key characters in Victorian Europe, when the Industrial Revolution was changing the world forever. These three are an immensely powerful arms manufacturer, John Stone, Lord Ravenscliff; his beguiling wife Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff; and the mysterious Henry Cort, who is somehow linked to Stone's business empire.

The book progresses by moving backward in time. After a brief prologue, we are in London in 1909. Stone has fallen to his death — and left a will bestowing part of his vast fortune to an unnamed and anonymous child.

To find the child and complete her beloved husband's wishes, Lady Ravenscliff hires a young journalist. To hide the volatile nature of his mission, he tells Stone's colleagues that he is writing a biography of the great man.

Explosive questions soon emerge. Why is Stone's vast empire in serious trouble? Why does Lady Ravenscliff infiltrate a group of anarchists? Why did Stone visit a seedy fortuneteller just before his fatal plunge?

Was the industrialist in business with Britain's enemy, France, or was he setting up his own navy? What about the attempted assassination of the Russian czar? And just what was the cause of Stone's plunge?

In the book's second part — Paris, 1890 — Cort narrates his education as a spy, infiltrating high society and building a network of informants. What he finds is a situation that threatens the economy of the British Empire (a situation, eerily similar to the current banking crisis).

Stone himself shoulders narrative duties in the book's third part, set in Venice, 1867. A businessman but not yet a titan, he falls under the city's spell. But Stone is not too moony to avoid life-changing encounters — one with a willful woman with whom he begins an affair and another with a hardheaded Scottish engineer obsessed with perfecting a weapon.

The book's conclusion skillfully tidies up its varied plot lines with a rewarding series of "aha! moments." And the truth behind Stone's fall — not revealed until the final pages — is a genuine shock.

When it was published, "An Instance of the Fingerpost" was widely compared to Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose." But I would suggest another comparison, with the Canadian writer Robertson Davies' brilliant Deptford Trilogy.

The two writers share many traits, including a penchant for big but not bloated books, shrewd plots, vivid characters, and lucid, unpretentious prose.

Furthermore, "Stone's Fall" and the Deptford Trilogy share several themes, including the elusiveness of truth, the fallibility of narrators, and — believe it or not — the poetry and beauty that can be found in an understanding of commerce.

Don't be scared by the size of "Stone's Fall" — it weighs in at some 800 pages, big enough to make a handy offensive weapon. The heft may be daunting, but this erudite tour de force is more than worth the time invested.

Seattle writer Adam Woog's column on crime fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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