One of the other customer reviewers of this book complained that the murder was solved summarily a hundred pages before the end and wondered if critics who call this a classic had skimmed the end to meet review deadlines. Such comments make me wonder if that reviewer did not, like so many of the characters in this book, miss the fingerposts.
For this book is not primarily a story about the solving of a murder. The murder itself serves more as plot device to bring the four narrators (and others) together in a certain time and place, allowing them to interact with each other and present their widely diverging views of events, actions, and consequences. Indeed, for three of the four narrators the murder is almost incidental to their narratives, only two of them are actually concerned (or even desirous) that justice be done, and none of them is especially sorrowful about the death of the murder victim. Rather, for each of them the murder is really only significant for the part it plays in their own narrative and what they believe it indicates in terms of their interpretation of events. The driving idea behind the novel is not the solution of a murder, but how different people can see the same facts, or parts thereof, and draw differing conclusions - particularly when those conclusions serve to reinforce preconceived notions; and the more some people believe in the rightness of their preconceptions, the more willing they become to pervert truth to suit their ends.
This extraordinary novel is really a masterpiece of crafting. The use of the first-person narrative allows each narrator to present a depiction of himself (and his motives) very different from the way others see him, which has the effect of causing the reader to rethink and re-examine opinions formed along the way. In particular, the chilling, almost unwitting portrayal by two of the narrators of their own destructive, delusive obsessions is worthy of Patricia Highsmith at her best. "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is by turns amusing, infuriating, puzzling, informative, and even heartbreaking. It also goes a long way toward evoking the uncertainty, chaos and duplicity of the era (so very different from today's era of open and transparent government).
I should say that although I enjoy a good, intriguing mystery, I'm not particularly a fan of the "mystery" genre; I'm more partial to books that provoke reflection on the human condition. This is one of a very few books I've bought based on the recommendation, and I can honestly state that I was totally unprepared for the level of quality I found in it. I can think of few works of fiction that have moved me quite as much as this one.
As some schools of thought insist that every critique must perforce call attention to shortcomings, I suppose I should include a few for form's sake. I could mention a couple of niggling instances of grammatical lapse by men purportedly of education, such as the use of the objective pronoun in a comparison (i.e. "older than me"); for some reason this error always grates on my nerves (although it seems to be almost a prerequisite for translators), but the occurrences were far too few to impact my overall opinion. The only real complaints I can muster are two: first, that this book deprived me of much sleep during the time I took to read it; and second, that it left me at a loss as to what to read next.