March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

by Iain Pears

It is 1663, and England is wracked with intrigue and civil strife. When an Oxford don is murdered, it seems at first that the incident can have nothing to do with great matters of church and state. Who poured the arsenic into the victim’s brandy? The evidence points to Sarah Blundy, a servant girl who had motive and opportunity. She confesses to the crime and is sentenced to be hanged.

Yet little is as it seems in this gripping novel, which dramatizes the ways in which witnesses can see the same events yet remember them falsely. Each of four narrators—a Venetian medical student, a young man intent on proving his late father innocent of treason, a cryptographer and an archivist—fingers a different culprit. Each one gives us a mere “simulacrum of verity,” as the most reliable of them puts it, and part of the novel’s pleasure is figuring out the truth from accounts that are tinged with conscious fabrication in one case and with the distortions of obsession, paranoia and passion in the others. The central enigma concerns the character of Sarah Blundy. Is she a radical? A witch? A prophetess?

An Instance of the Fingerpost has an ungainly title and is probably too long. While reading it, you will learn more about the mores, beliefs and prejudices of 17th-century England than you might have thought compatible with page-turning fiction. But like The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s surprise bestseller of 1983, this is an erudite and entertaining tour de force. (Riverhead, $27)

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