Monday, October 3, 2011

A Conspiracy of Paper

David Liss

I picked up David Liss first novel, published in 2000, because the title appealed to me. It is set in London in the early 18th century and deals with a number of historical themes. The protagonist, Benjamin Weaver is a Portuguese Jew, one of a group that had begun to arrive in England at the end of the previous century. Jews were expelled from England by Edward I in 1290, so these Portuguese were all recent arrivals, coming from the Netherlands, where they were in exile from Portugal and Spain due to the 1492 expulsion there.

Weaver is a former prizefighter, retired because of an injury in the ring, except there was no ring at that time. Fights were staged in theaters and Weaver had fallen from the stage and broken a leg. He was lucky to have survived the treatment he received and luckier still to be able to walk. Professional sports is in it's infancy and medicine is based on folklore and trial and error.

Weaver has turned to recovering stolen property to make a living. He is in the process of inventing the role of the private detective. At this time London is inventing the police force and criminal justice. Corruption and bribery are the order of the day and thief takers are paid a reward for the conviction of those who they capture. He becomes involved in a case involving possible counterfeit stock certificates in the South Sea Company.

The idea of a stock exchange is just beginning to emerge in London at this time and the sale of shares in all kinds of ventures runs rampant. People had long bought shares in trading ventures by ship, then waited for their ship to come in, as the saying goes. In the 1700s shares in new inventions, public works projects, schemes of a very sketchy nature, but which promised to make money, and even lottery tickets were bought and sold in London coffee houses. Everybody who was anybody bought them.

The South Sea Company, a real company of the period, had been chartered by the English Government and given a monopoly on trade with the Pacific coast of South America. It was intended to be a great company like the East India Company, which traded with India, China and all of East Asia. The only problem is that the Pacific coast of South America was owned and operated by Spain, which was not about to allow some English company to trade there. Nevertheless, stock in the South Sea Company traded vigorously in the coffee houses and it's directors cooked up schemes to sell even more stock by exchanging Bank of England bonds for South Sea stock, thus relieving the government of debt. Eventually, after the time that this novel takes place, the South Sea Bubble burst and the first financial panic in the English speaking world, the first "bubble" got it's name and, apparently, nobody learned a thing.

The novel is full of ingenious plot twists and characters that seem right out of Dickens, including Jonathan Wilde, another real historical figure, who was the first organized crime boss. It takes the reader into the muddy, filthy streets of London's slums and into the posh clubs and ballrooms of the wealthy.Weaver has to thread his way through multiple layers of lies to find the murderer of his father, the forger of South Seas Company stock. It's a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.

In the end both Weaver and the reader are left with ambiguity. We think that Weaver has found his man and justice is administered by persons unknown in a most irregular way. And room is left for a sequel.

This post is in the 82nd
Book Review Blog Carnival

Published at Mel's Mouthful on Mothering.


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