“Stone’s Fall” is an intricate, three-part historical novel by British author Iain Pears, best known previously for his crime fiction. At the center of the tale is the mysterious death of John Stone, Lord Ravenscliff, an industrialist and arms seller whose fall from the window of his London townhouse in 1909 generates the plot.
John Stone’s widow, Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, hires Matthew Braddock, a young crime reporter, to find a child – the heir to whom her husband has left a huge legacy and about whom Elizabeth knew nothing. The reporter, offered three times his normal salary, accepts the assignment. As the search leads him deeper into Stone’s business affairs, the reader learns about the London Stock Exchange and Britain on the eve of World War I. But Matthew becomes an impediment to the mystery he is trying to solve when he falls in love with Elizabeth.
The story moves back in time, untangling the roots of the mystery from the points of view of different characters. Part II is set in 1890 Paris, where a spy tells his tale of the magnetic Elizabeth. John Stone’s own memories shape the third and final section of the book, set in 1867 Venice.
Iain Pears’ description brings to life the sights and smells of other times and places. Of a London street in 1909 he writes: “The beggar sitting, as he always did, by the jewelers opposite, singing a song which was so execrable people gave him money to keep him quiet. The delivery boys giggling to themselves over some joke. The bearded man in strange clothes walking quietly on the other side, keeping close to the wall. Perhaps he was the richest person in the street? Perhaps the poorest? The old man with a military cast to him, dignified and correct; a doorman or porter, whose best days passed some forty years previously when he breathed the air of India or Africa.” This is Pears’ London at the unwinding of the Empire.