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A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

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Telynor
Bibliophile
Location: On the Banks of the Hudson

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

Postby Telynor » Mon September 1st, 2008, 9:48 pm

Think of a time where men and women, desperate to make money, buy and sell shares in companies, driving the value up; often borrowing money to further their ambitions, but where a single mishap can lead them into bankruptcy or worse. Think of a corrupt society, where marriage is mostly a sham, where affairs and adultery are winked at. Think of a culture where minorities, whether in race or religion or national origin, are careful to not draw too much attention to themselves lest there be a punishing backlash. The very wealthy spend their time in near idleness, politicians are hopelessly corrupt, and the vast majority spend their lives in trying to hold things together.

America, the 2000's?

Think rather, of England in the 1720's, and life is hovering on the edge of either glory or ruin, depending on luck. David Liss' novel, <i>A Conspiracy of Paper</i> takes the reader back to a time when speculation was everywhere, whether it was at a gaming table, in marriage or making money. Told in first person, we get to know the world of Benjamin Weaver very well.

He is a Jew, but somewhat accepted by the British majority around him. Until an injury brought an end to his boxing career, he was known as 'The Lion of Judah;' now his life isn't quite as public, but the violence hasn't diminished much. Benjamin brings in various criminals to the court, or better yet, handles private, discreet inquiries. It provides him with a modest income, and as long as he doesn't have many extravagances, he does well.

But when he is approached by Sir Owen, Ben Weaver finds himself entangled in a larger plot that he can begin to imagine. At first the assignment is simple enough -- retrieve a packet of letters from a woman named Kate Cole, letters that would prove to be very indiscreet if Sir Owen's intended, a young woman of wealth and sensibilities were to discover. A second commission, that of Mr. Balfour, is a bit more perilous -- discover who caused the death of his father, who hung himself after loosing an immense sum of money in stock investments.

And here the tale makes a very personal twist. For it seems that to uncover it all, Benjamin must return to his family, from whom he has been long estranged, for his father also was murdered, and the crime remains unsolved. Back among his family, Benjamin meets the beautiful Miriam, his cousin's widow, and the more he discovers the more treacherous and dangerous the story turns, for at the center of it all lays the new creation of the stock market, where money can be made and lost in days...

I have to say, this was a cracking good read. Author David Liss creates a very believable world here, and catches the uncertainty and menace beautifully. Much of the story is told through conversations, and the language of the time simply resonates, a time when being able to speak well, and elegantly was the sign of a gentleman.

With the secondary characters, Liss does just as well as he does with Weaver. Elias, Ben's best friend, and aspiring playwright and mathematician is a delight to read about, and I couldn't help but chuckle over his obsession with letting blood. There's also his flirtatious landlady, forever trying to get some sort of gossipy story out of Benjamin. And the touches of Jewish lore and custom was spot on for the times, it was handled very well, and didn't have the mistakes that I usually come across when I read historical fiction, and someone decides to have a Jewish character or two in there.

To balance out the higher end of society, there are also the dregs of London's underbelly. Jonathan Wild, an actual historical figure, is prominent in the story, and if his tale seems fantastical, it all really happened. Not only did he run gangs of theives and cutthroats, he had quite a stable of doxies as well -- and woe betide anyone who wasn't useful, as we see in the story.

At the very center is the story of the South Seas Company, and the beginings of what we know as the stock market today. Every now and then, Liss shows us how the system worked, and I was both enthralled and chilled by the similarities to our own world today. I won't reveal here just what happened to the South Seas Company, but it was quite a shocker at the time.

There is an author's note at the end, explaining some of the more obscure points of the story, and an interview between himself and author Sheri Holman that is fascinating to read. There are also a selection of questions for readers groups to try out. Finishing it all up is an excerpt from David Liss' followup to this, called <I>A Spectacle of Corruption,</I> which continues the story of Benjamin Weaver.

This was a great, thoughtful as well as exciting read. Fans of historical fiction that is based in fact should enjoy this one, and mixed in with the talk of money and philosophy, there are scenes of housebreaking, swordplay, the horrors of prison and a seldom seen view of a society not so far away from out own.

Five solid stars. I intend to find more of this novelist's work, it's worth it.

Novels by David Liss:
<I>The Coffee Trader</I>
<B>A Conspiracy of Paper</b>
<I>A Spectacle of Corruption</I>

<I>A Conspiracy of Paper</I>
David Liss
2000; Ballantine Books
ISBN 0-804-11912-0

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diamondlil
Bibliomaniac

Postby diamondlil » Tue September 2nd, 2008, 4:08 am

I borrowed either this one or The Coffee Trader a while back but had to return the book unread. I must remember to have another try.
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