A mystery, set in the seventeenth century and told by four different eye-witnesses, all men. Two are the views of fictitious characters, two are imputed to be real figures from the past. Beautiful, but poverty-stricken Sarah Blundy is accused of having killed a professor, only remotely connected to her. Each of the observers reasons his way to a position on her guilt or innocence based on their skewed observation of the events, and on their own assumptions about women, religion, and justice. Post-Cromwellian tensions between Catholics, Protestants, and Quakers are explored.

A manuscript by the Italian, Dr. Cola, constitutes the first account. In the thrall of medical science and the great Robert Boyle, Cola is cast as the true "inventor" of transfusion which is "stolen" by the real and vibrant Richard Lower, generally credited by historians with its first use in England. Cola attends Sarah’s ailing mother gratis and transfuses her with modest success.

The other three writers react to his version of the tale which they read in manuscript. The mad Jack Prescott is intent on exonerating his probably inexonerable father for misdeeds in the Civil War, while the uncharitable cryptographer, John Wallis, is intent on divining nothing but evil in the cryptic forms of women, Catholics, and foreigners. Their versions are wondrously convoluted attempts to keep the impossible within the realm of the plausible. Pears puts the truth (such as it is) in the words of the real antiquarian, Anthony Wood, who explains that a fingerpost--like a pathognomonic sign--points to the only solution possible.


Informed by a deep understanding of seventeenth-century political and religious history, this sumptuous and intelligently playful novel offers a vivid recreation of period, place and person. Five pages of "dramatis personae" elucidate the construction and help to separate the novel from history.

Not only does Pears intersperse real figures from the past throughout his novel, but he bases some of the fictional characters on historical personages too. For example, Sarah’s case is modeled on the story of a woman criminal of 1655. The strikingly disadvantaged position of poor women in that period is reflected by the helpless desperation of Sarah and her sick mother, and it is underscored by the fact that all the tellers of her tale are men.

Medical users of the database may be most interested in part one, the account of Dr. Cola, in which the legendary Richard Lower looms large as a brilliant, irascible figure of only modest scruples. But the relationship of poverty to disease and to crime offers other examples of medical relevance. The reading of a crime is, in a sense, analogous to the diagnosis of a disease. Each of the four accounts provides an internally consistent diagnosis. They remind us that crimes (and diseases), however much they are a reflection of observations, are ideas judged by their observers.


Vintage/Random House

Place Published




Page Count