|Genre:||Mystery & Thrillers|
"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.