A Conspiracy of Paper

I’ve had David Liss on my reading list for a long time. I’m not sure how I heard about him. I think maybe there was a write-up in the Chicago Tribune book section, or maybe even Newsweek. Who knows, but I finally pulled the trigger. This came with a lot of deliberation, but it was a New York Times Notable Book so I wasn’t taking that big of a risk.

I’ve always been a big fan of the mystery/thriller genre but I am pretty selective and fiercely loyal to authors like Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, and Sue Grafton. I need to be comfortable that I’m not wasting my time and once I settle on a “brand,” so to speak, I don’t really deviate. I own just about every Hillerman in hardcover and I have never been disappointed with any of his books. With Hillerman, I know I’m going to get deep and interesting characters, a keen insight into a different culture or time period, and an intricate, challenging, yet understandable plotline. I think the same goes for Francis and Grafton. Let me say right now, David Liss did not disappoint.

The main character is Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish thief-taker (private detective basically) in London – year 1719. Weaver is a former champion boxer who now lives comfortably in London chasing down criminals in a discrete and professional manner. He has led a rough life and spent most of it estranged from his family and his overbearing, cruel father.

The story begins shortly after his father is killed in the streets of London by an out of control carriage driver. It is deemed an accident by the relevant authorities and Weaver shows little remorse given his rocky relationship with his father. However, certain instances give rise to doubts about the nature of his father’s death and Weaver’s interest gets piqued enough such that he begins to investigate.

I’m not giving anything away, this all happens within the first 20 pages.

His investigation sets off a series of events in London that brings Weaver in contact with corrupt corporations, seedy street criminals, a prolific mob boss, the beautiful widow of his dead cousin, and an enemy from Weaver’s childhood that may be an ally. The most colorful character of the bunch is his buddy, Elias, who happens to be a doctor, aspiring playwright, drunken playboy, and part-time philosopher. The novel is set in a very anti-Semitic, early 18th century London, a city that during this time was leading the world in the conversion from gold to paper as a medium of finance. Most of the action takes place in and around the exchanges and the London financial markets.

Liss was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and wrote his thesis on “the ways in which eighteenth century Britons imagined themselves through their money” (Historical Note, page 438). So as you can imagine, he mixes in some real characters with his fictional characters and attempts to capture the cultural and political atmosphere of the time. This historical backing does not impinge at all on the intrigue and violence of the story. It is a great mystery with plot twists throughout.

Finally, not only is it a great mystery, but it also has a great main character in Benjamin Weaver. It is told from his perspective. He is a tough yet reflective gentleman. He wrestles with the demons of his childhood, the British class structure, anti-Semitism, and his own insecurity. He questions the moral implications of his actions and second-guesses his methods of investigation. He is not infallible but certainly resolute once he sets his mind to something. This was a great read and I look forward to reading the other two books, which continue the adventures of Weaver.