Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Conspiracy of Paper

Genre: Mystery & Thrillers
Author:David Liss
"These financial institutions are committed to divesting our money of value and replacing it with promises of value. For when they control the promise of value, they control all wealth itself,"--Playwright and scholar Elias Gordon to his friend, "detective" Benjamin Weaver.

"A Conspiracy of Paper" is a riveting murder and crime-in-high-places mystery. It won the Edgar Award in 2001 as the Best American Mystery of the Year and also won awards for best first novel of the year. At least two other "Benjamin Weaver" books have been published.

The novel, by the American author David Liss, is set in the colorful and treacherous world of early Hanoverian London, with all its coffee houses, gin mills, theaters, gambling dens, and the emerging "new finance" capitalist engines such as the South Sea Company. It's 1719 and the South Sea Company is on the verge of losing 98 percent of its stock value, creating the first stock-driven financial panic in English history. But the public is unaware that the South Sea Company, set up to do business in South America, is about to go bust. The rivalry between "stock-jobbers" (brokers) and their over-extended clients forms the background of the story. The "new finance" groups like South Sea are also getting their hooks into the heights of the British political elite, creating rivalry with the more staid financial powers like gold traders and The Bank of England.

The narrator is a former professional boxer, Benjamin Weaver, who has become the 18th Century equivalent of a private eye. He is known in the lingo of the time as a "thief-taker", a man who makes a living recovering stolen goods for well-off victims of crime gangs, and occasionally catching the crooks and turning them into the law courts and the nascent legal system for a reward.

Weaver is a first -generation British Jew who changed his last name from Licenzo to a more Anglicized name when he becomes a professional boxer. (He is partially based, according to the author, by the memoirs of a then-famous real-life British-Jewish boxer of the time, Daniel Mendoza. Mendoza is considered the father of modern boxing. His innovations like "boxing rings" and the science of movement and punching are still part of the sport. )

Liss' main character is hired by an rich gentile anti-semite named William Balfour to look into the death of Balfour's father. Balfour informs him that the death of Weaver's own estranged father--run down by a drunken coachman--is linked to his own father's death.

Weaver is a much sought-after "thief-taker" because he is essentially an honest man, and he is tough enough to go anywhere in the dens of London vice to ferret out criminals. (There are no police in London at this time, and only an ineffectual constabulary and a lot of crooked judges stand for anything like a system of law enforcement in the 18th Century.) Weaver's main rival is a crime lord named Jonathan Wild, who has a syndicate dedicated to promoting thievs (who then turn their goods over to Wild so he can sell them back to their original owners.) Wild, a real-life figure who was the subject of a book by Daniel DeFoe, also employs goons to cart some thieves off to Newgate Prison and face either the hangman, deportation or a stretch of the hell on earth jail could be for those without money or influence.

Weaver's tracking down of this and other important cases he takes on simultaneously weaves him into a hard-core Darwinian world of both the heigths and the depths of London. It's a city with opulent theaters and gentleman's clubs and a vibrant society, but it is also a society made nervous by the "new finance" and the stock-jobbers of Exchange Alley and this new mania for owing stock that may (or may not) make them rich--or break them.

Weaver also gets back in touch with his Jewish roots through his uncle's family. The novel is not sparing in detail and it captures very well the precarious existence of Jews (who had been banned from England from the time of Edward I in 1300 for three and a half-centuries) and how they did business and kept themselves generally both a part of the British economy and also culturally aloof due to gentile bigotry and also pressure from their elders to carry on the culture and the faith. Every good private eye novel has a pretty lady and this novel has Miriam, a widowed cousin of Weaver who both catches his eye and also leads him unwittingly into greater danger.

Given the financial dis-settlement of the last five years, "A Conspiracy of Paper" seems like familiar territory today for those who read about the financial chicanery of today. It's a fast-moving and instructive historical novel and its also a hard-boiled suspense story.


  1. Sounds like there is something in this story for everyone from Sports fans to History Buffs. A little political and crime fighting as well sounds great Doug.

  2. You sunned up the book's appeal quite well, Mike. Liss is a very good writer of historical fiction so i learned a lot as I went along.

  3. I have another one of this author's books (Coffee Trader: A Novel) on my wish list at Audible and have not gotten it yet. Sounds like you recommend him as a good author.

  4. Sounds like an interesting yarn Doug, I thought you had already pioneered this genre yourself, the historic detective novel set in London, albeit a couple of centuries before this one was set?

    The Hanoverian period was the best of times and the worst of times to borrow a phrase from Dickens. The beginnings of corporate capitalism, the massive extension of the British empire on the back of all that (despite the loss of the American colonies) the institution of 'constitutional monarchy' and the shaping of the newly created United Kingdom into the monstrosity it eventually became.

    Set against that background, this novel sounds like an engaging tale of the origins of the British police state having evolved out of the English police state from the Tudor period, now imbued with a globalist perspective and enhanced by Germanic efficiency.

    A book to look out for I think Doug, I liked the cover too, thanks for the review, I can see how this novel is 'right up your street' a ripping plot set against the real events in Georgian London.

  5. Very much Mary Ellen! I'm reading the second Benjamin Weaver book, "A Spectacle of Corruption" (2004), right now, which deals with a Parlimentary election circa 1720. I also want to get to "The Coffee Trader" soon.

  6. Yes, AA, I thought a few years back I was cooking along on a brand new genre, but chaps like this Dave Liss upstart and a couple other scribes found literary "terra incognita" ahead of me. Drat! Nothing new under the Sun it seems.

    Yes, Hanoverian times was all that you say. It's about this time that the British East India Company kicks into gear to keep up with those early capitalist/coffee house dwellers over in The Netherlands.

    I had come across some of this material from a few of DeFoe's books like "Moll Flanders", the odd history or two, and Boswell's "Life of Johnson", et al. When I was younger I was more drawn to the Tudor and Stuart era. (Americans can't get enough of those wacky cut-ups like Henry VIII and Bloody Mary and King James and all the spy masters and sea pirates and neufarious nobles grasping for the throne or undue influence on some child monarch like Edward VI. Put a book about the Tudors at a bookstore and watch the copies fly off the shelf! Alison Weir just put out one abour Anne Bolyen's sister and that's getting good publicity. The late and marvelous A. W. Rowse, an eminent "Elizbethan author" in his own right, had so many historical best-sellers over here.

    Mr. Liss himself is a former doctoral candidate from New York's Columbia Univeristy in 18th Century British Literature. He does a good job making one feel that his main character , Ben Weaver, is pennng his memoirs in the literary style of, say, Henry Fielding (who wrote a book about the crafty aforementioned prince of crime, Jonathan Wild.)

    "Right up my street" is exactly right, AA. I love the backdrop of historical London, the heights of the Drury Lane Theater and the pits of Gin Lane rubbing shoulders in a bustling metropolis.

    It's like the 1940's Los Angeles of Dunwich College's own Raymond Chandler and the 1950's LA of Ross MacDonald, a raw metropolis which to sleuths like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, respectively, can be a place where all the business of vice and dirty secrets are just under the gilded domes of Hollywood and the "old money" folks living in Pasadena.