Stone's Fall


Iain Pears




Date Reviewed:

November 2, 2010

tone's Fall is actually three short, interlinked novels. The first story (230 pages long) is set in London of 1909, just a few years before the Great War (World War I). The second story (190 pages) is set earlier, in Paris of 1890. The final story, (160 pages) is set in Venice of 1867. Each of these stories is told by a different narrator, but all revolve around the life and death of a industrial magnate John Stone, who owned numerous companies before his mysterious death at his home, when he fell out of an open window and perished (Thus, the title of the book: Stone's Fall).

The first story is told by Matthew Braddock. Braddock is a crime reporter for a London newspaper when he is unexpectedly hired by Elizabeth, the Lady Ravenscliff, who is the widow of the recently deceased John Stone. Elizabeth hires Braddock to write a biography of Stone, the Baron of Ravenscliff. It is an unusual, but lucrative assignment, so Braddock cannot turn it down. However, Elizabeth reveals to Braddock that his true assignment is to discover the identity of Stone's heir, to whom Stone has left the huge sum of 250,000 pounds in his will. Obviously, the Stone estate can not be settled until the child is identified, but oddly enough, Stone does not name who his heir is in the will, and Elizabeth claims to have no knowledge of any offspring. So Braddock enters a world of anarchists, shipyard workers, reporters, bankers and the powerful business associates of Stone. We learn about how Stone organized his companies, built his wealth, and leverage his stock ownership to acquire control of ever larger corporations until he had a huge network of industries at his command. Stone owned mines, docks, shipyards, manufacturing, machining factories - all set out to construct battleships and generate huge profits. But profits are to be had only if governments buy his battleships, so there is an element of international intrigue as well. Braddock is warned about a ruthless British spy master Henry Cort who also seems to be involved in this complex tale.

The second part of the book is the life story of British spy master Henry Cort. It is Cort who first organizes British spying into a disciplined profession - previously spying had been a gentleman's game. But Cort has a background in banking, so he appreciates how efficiency and information can be generated just from analysing available information. While on assignment in Paris, Cort learns of a major plot to bring down the Bank of Barings, which will cause a major financial panic. He also meets the fabulously beautiful Countess Elizabeth Hadik-Barkoczy von Futak uns Salsa, who we met in the first story as Elizabeth, the Lady Ravenscliff, the wife of John Stone. But Cort knows Elizabeth's secrets, and so he treads on some dangerous ground.

This second section about finance may not appeal to all readers, but I was fascinated by the manipulation of money by the lords of finance as they construct a crisis so as to generate profits for themselves, despite the havoc it will wreck upon everyone else (it sounds so much like modern developments!) Cort learns how bonds and markets can be manipulated and he takes some desperate measures ensue to avert a major panic.

The final section, set in Venice, is narrated by John Stone himself. He relates details that explain how he got his start as an arms manufacturer, before he developed and sold the first torpedo to the Royal Navy. At the very end of this story, the reader is treated to some final revelations about identities and agendas, which are surprising but on second thought, quite unlikely. I thought that the third section was the weakest story - not everything is explained, though it is possible I missed the answers I was looking for. Pears does not spell out everything in his explanations. Who funded the anarchists? Why did Elizabeth shoot Jan the Builder? What was Xanthos betrayal? What is the purpose of the mysterious "ghost of Venice" - Signor Casanova, who claims to have lived 140 years - Stone has a long conversation with him, yet it only lasts a couple of minutes?? How did the Marchesa, the fortune teller know that Drennan had a woman named Rose in his past who loved him? At the end of the book, I thought that the big surprise which explained Stone's demise, was too contrived to be believed.

Overall I enjoyed this novel, especially the first two sections. I just wish the lose ends had been tied up a bit neater.