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Iain Pears

If you were to write a series of detective novels, what kind of mysteries would your main character solve? The British author Iain Pears (1955-present) wrote a seven-series collection of art history mystery novels. Pears’s writing style experiments with time as he plays with the order of narratives and explores themes that weave together history, religion, and politics to create insightful and informed fiction.

Iain Pears: Biography

Iain Pears's biography begins on August 8, 1955, the day he was born to George Derrick Pears and Betty Mitchell Pears. His father worked in manufacturing, and his mother was a civil officer. Pears was born and grew up in Coventry, a city in central England.

Iain Pears, Coventry Cathedral, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Iain Pears was born in Coventry, an English city best known for the Coventry Cathedral, which was left in ruins after a WWII bombing.

Iain Pears is a highly educated writer. From elementary through high school, Pears attended a prestigious all-boys school called the Warwick School. After high school, he attended Wadham College at Oxford University, receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1977 and his Master of Arts in 1979. Pears went on to pursue a Doctorate of Philosophy from the Wolfson College of Oxford, which he completed in 1982. From 1987 to 1988, he partook in postdoctoral studies at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, through a Getty Fellowship.

Pears had a successful career as a news reporter and correspondent before becoming a novelist. He served as a reporter for the BBC, the British public broadcast TV network Channel 4, and the German public broadcast network ZDF. Pears traveled the world and gained knowledge about world events. He served as a correspondent for the global news agency Reuters in Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States between 1982 and 1990.

Ian Pears did not begin his career as a novelist until the 1990s. From then on, he has been a highly prolific writer. Pears's first published novel was The Raphael Affair (1990), which is the first book in a seven-part series about a detective art scholar and historian called Jonathan Argyll. The other books in the Johnathan Argyll art history mystery series include The Titian Committee (1991), The Bernini Bust (1992), The Last Judgement (1993), Giotto's Hand (1994), Death and Restoration (1996), and The Immaculate Deception (2000).

Iain Pear, Raphael Frescos, StudySmarterFig. 2 - In The Raphael Affair, the art scholar Jonathan Argyll searches for a lost painting by the Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael.

Pears first gained international recognition for his 1997 best-selling book, An Instance of the Fingerpost, a historical thriller mystery novel that explores a murder in Oxford, England, in 1663 from the point of four unreliable narrators.

Unreliable narrator: a narrator who is not credible or cannot be trusted. Unreliable narrators are typically created through first-person narration.

Pears continued his exploration with narrative voices and structures in his following books The Dream of Scipio (2002), Stone's Fall (2009), and Arcadia (2015).

Pears married his wife, Ruth Harris, in 1985. The couple has two sons, and they currently live in Oxford, England.

Ruth Harris is a professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford. As well as being an academic, she is a writer and historian. In 2011, Harris received the Wolfson History Prize for her biography on Alfred Dreyfus entitled, The Man on Devil's Island (2010).

Iain Pears: Writing Style

Iain Pears's writing style is notably characterized by experimentation with narration and narrative structure.

Narrative structure: the order and the way that a narrative is presented to a reader or audience.

Pears uses interesting perspectives and narration techniques to unveil his plotlines in a psychologically complex, intriguing manner. For example, in An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears uses four different narrators who all tell their versions of the same events. Readers are left guessing who and what to believe and are forced to make character judgments to obtain the truth.

In The Dream of Scipio, three stories of men from vastly different centuries are tied together by a text that one of the men writes and the others later discover. Pears frequently uses quotes and references to texts to lend continuity and tie together themes of stories that would otherwise be disparate.

Pears’s 2009 novel Stone’s Fall is told in three parts in reverse chronology. His most recent book Arcadia comes with an accompanying app that enables readers to switch between multiple narratives and perspectives.

How do you think the order a story is told impacts the reader? How do you think a narrator affects how the reader perceives the story?

Iain Pears: Literary Works

Since 1990, Iain Pears has published 12 fictional literary works. His books are listed below in order of the dates of publication:

  1. 1990: The Raphael Affair (Jonathan Argyll series)
  2. 1991: The Titian Committee (Jonathan Argyll series)
  3. 1992: The Bernini Bust (Jonathan Argyll series)
  4. 1993: The Last Judgement (Jonathan Argyll series)
  5. 1994: Giotto's Hand
  6. 1996: Death and Restoration (Jonathan Argyll series)
  7. 1997: An Instance of the Fingerpost
  8. 2000: The Immaculate Deception (Jonathan Argyll series)
  9. 2002: The Dream of Scipio
  10. 2004: The Portrait
  11. 2009: Stone's Fall
  12. 2015: Arcadia

Iain Pears also published one nonfiction book called The Discovery of Painting: The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England, 1680-1768 (1988).

Below is an in-depth look at three of Iain Pears's most notable novels, An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Dream of Scipio, and The Portrait.

An Instance of the Fingerpost

An Instance of the Fingerpost is a historical thriller and mystery set in the 1660s in Oxford, England. It is the time just after the English Civil War (1642-1651), and conflicts arise around the restoration of the monarchy. During this time, questions of politics, science, religion, and philosophy create both turmoil and progress.

The title of the novel comes from Francis Bacon's Latin philosophical book Novum Organum (1620). The word "fingerpost" refers to a directional sign pointing in one or more directions. However, in Latin, it simply means "cross," which is suggestive of the crucifixion.

In Pears's novel, a young woman is accused of murdering Dr. Robert Grove, and four eclectic witnesses write about the circumstances surrounding Grove's death. The four witnesses, Marco da Cola, Jack Prescott, John Wallis, and Anthony Wood, are questionable narrators with varying relations to the crown and state. While all four witnesses have captivating testimonies, only one reveals the truth.

Many of the characters in the book are real historical figures. Below is some information about the historical figures presented in An Instance of the Fingerpost:

  • John Wallis (1616-1703) was an English clergyman and mathematician credited for helping develop infinitesimal calculus. Wallis was the chief cryptographer for Parliament and the royal court.
  • Anthony Wood (1632-1695) was an English historian and antiquarian who studied the ancient past.
  • John Locke (1632-1704) was a seminal English Enlightenment philosopher and physician who developed ideas of liberalism and empiricism, the belief that knowledge can only come from sensory experience.
  • Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was an Irish scientist and philosopher who is one of the founders of modern chemistry, the scientific method, and Boyle's law.
  • Richard Lower (1631-1691) was an English physician who helped develop a system for blood transfusions.
  • John Thurloe (1616-1668) was an English politician and the head of a group of spies under Oliver Cromwell.

The Dream of Scipio

The Dream of Scipio is set in Provence, France but spans from the 5th to the 20th century telling tales of three men, each living at a critical historical moment in Western Civilization. Manlius Hippomanes is a wealthy man living during the 5th-century fall of the Roman Empire, who makes it his focus to preserve Roman civilization. Olivier de Noyen is a 14th-century poet and intellectual living during the time of the rampant spread of the Bubonic Plague. Julien Barneuve is also an intellectual, but he lives during World War II and supports the Vichy government.

Though the various men and historical periods have very different stories, their narratives are linked by the text, The Dream of Scipio, which is written by Manlius Hippomanes and is later discovered by the other two men. The text explores how politics influence religious discrimination and religious tolerance, a common theme throughout the novel.

The Dream of Scipio is the title of a portion of the Latin book De Re Publica (51 BC) written by the Roman statesman, lawyer, and philosopher, Cicero.

The Portrait

The Portrait is a dark, suspenseful tale that unfolds to reveal secrets of betrayal, forbidden love, and murder. The protagonist Henry MacAlpine is a highly successful artist in London who abruptly decides to move to the windy, remote Island of Houat off the coast of Brittany, France. When MacAlpine receives his first visitor on the island after four years of living alone, the truth about why he moved beings unraveling. This visitor is a well-known art critic named William Naysmith, who sits for a portrait and ends up having much more revealed than his likeness.

The Portrait, Windy Island Sea, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Pears builds suspense and intrigue in The Portrait as a successful London artist moves to a windy, isolated island, and readers gradually discover why.

Iain Pears: Themes

Iain Pears’s books explore the themes of art, beauty, religion, politics, and the resounding significance of history.

Art and Beauty

Pears wrote an entire series of books about art history mysteries. Art, the artistic process, and the idea and value of beauty are common themes throughout his works. Pears explores how and why beauty and art are so coveted and what they can reveal about human nature. In his novel The Portrait, the main character is a successful artist who flees to a remote island. When he sits to paint a portrait of his mysterious art critic guest, he finds that he cannot capture the man’s true disposition. Pears’s novels reveal how art strives to reflect life, and it's created to shed light on it.

Religion and Politics

Ian Pears’s novels frequently tie in themes of religion in an unlikely way. For example, in An Instance of the Fingerpost, a complex mystery unravels to reveal that a woman is a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Several of Pears’s characters are clergymen, Catholics, politicians, and influential people linked to the Church and the Papacy.

An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio explore the themes of religious power, discrimination, and how the two mingle with politics — especially in the past when there were numerous clashes between Church and state. Many of Pears’s characters wield political power or are deeply entrenched in or affected by the politics of power in their surroundings. Pears suggests that religion and politics greatly shape the course of history.

The Effects of History

All of Iain Pears’s books draw upon the histories of the time periods in which they take place. His characters, details, and plot lines draw upon real people and events. However, Pears does not write to portray history in a realistic, straightforward way but rather to unveil how the history of politics, religion, science, art, and philosophy influences an individual’s outlook, thoughts, and life.

Pears’s characters are often a reflection of their time periods, but not in a way that is static or banal. Rather, he delves into the psychological complexities and eccentricities of characters in response to their histories and the circumstances of their times.

Iain Pears: Quotes

In this quote, Pears explores the idea of deceptive beauty through the lens of religion. Pears’s writing contains many philosophical statements. He implies that even the ugliest and most evil things, such as the devil, can be disguised as something good and beautiful:

The devil himself can become beauty, so we are told, to corrupt mankind.”

(An Instance of the Fingerpost, Ch. 3)

Though Iain Pears was highly educated and received a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, his writing acknowledges how information can overwhelm the mind. Many of his characters are intellectuals and philosophers who reflect the ideals and histories of their times:

I have a theory that too much learning unbalances the mind. So much effort goes into squeezing in knowledge that there isn’t enough room left over for common sense.”

(An Instance of the Fingerpost, Ch. 1)

Iain Pears’s writings span centuries of history. However, his understanding of history can be understood as a chain of events rather than distinctive periods. Pears shows that there is not one singular point of influence and blame for the events that occur. Rather, each little action plays into the future and the future is intertwined with the past:

When all this is over, people will try to blame the Germans alone, and the Germans will try to blame the Nazis alone, and the Nazis will try to blame Hitler alone. They will make him bear the sins of the world. But it's not true. You suspected what was happening, and so did I. It was already too late over a year ago. I caused a reporter to lose his job because you told me to. He was deported. The day I did that I made my little contribution to civilization, the only one that matters.”

(The Dream of Scipio, Part 3)

Iain Pears - Key takeaways

  • Iain Pears is a British writer best known for the novels An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Dream of Scipio, The Portrait, and Arcadia.
  • Pears studied at Oxford and Yale and worked as an international reporter and correspondent.
  • Iain Pears’s writing style experiments with narration and narrative structure.
  • Pears wrote a seven-book series of art mystery novels known as the Jonathan Argyll series.
  • Iain Pears’s novels focus on themes including art, beauty, religion, politics, and history.

Frequently Asked Questions about Iain Pears

Iain Pears‘s best known books include An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Dream of Scipio, The Portrait, and Arcadia. 

Iain Pears is a British novelist who writes art history mysteries and fictional novels inspired by significant periods in Western history. 

Iain Pears is known for the seven series collection of art history mystery novels called the Jonathan Argyll series, as well as his experimental use of narrative structure.

Ian Pears has written 12 fictional novels and one non-fiction book. 

Iain Pears is originally from Coventry, England.

Final Iain Pears Quiz

Question

Where was Iain Pears born?

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Answer

Coventry, England

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Question

What is the name of the art scholar who serves as a detective in Pears’s seven part series of art history mystery novels?

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Answer

Jonathan Argyll

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True or False: Pears received a Doctor in Philosophy degree from Oxford.

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Answer

True

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Name at least two themes explores in Pears’s novels.

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Art, beauty, religion, politics, history

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What is the title of the novel that brought Pears international recognition?

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Answer

An Instance of the Fingerpost

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How many fiction novels has Pears written?

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12

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True or False: Pears’s writting frequently features unreliable narrators and experiments with narrative structure.

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True

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Which of Pears’s novels has an accompanying app that allows readers to explore different storylines?

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Answer

Arcadia

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True or False: Ian Pears worked internationally as a news reporter and correspondent before becoming a famous writer.

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True

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True or False: Pears writes historical nonfiction.

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False

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Question

Which character narrates A Question of Precedence?

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Marco de Cola

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Which character narrates The Great Trust

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Jack Prescott 

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Which character narrates The Character of Compliance?

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John Wallis

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Which character narrates An Instance of the Fingerpost?

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Answer

Anthony Wood

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Who is executed for Robert Grove's murder? 

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Answer

Sarah Blundy

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The story takes place in which prestigious education institution? 

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Answer

Oxford University 

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Marco de Cola is originally from which Italian city? 

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Venice

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The powder which kills Groves was designed to relieve __________. 

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Answer

Indigestion 

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Jack Prescott driving motivation is to __________. 

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Clear his father's name 

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Pears drew heavily on the philosophical work “Novum Organum” by _________. 

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Answer

Francis Bacon 

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