Wednesday, November 26, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
This week, Paco Enterprises proudly presents another mystery recommendation: A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss. Set in 18th century London, the novel intertwines murder and financial speculation in a robust investigation of the notorious South Sea bubble. The book is an intriguing page-turner in its own right, but it is made even more fascinating because of its primary theme, the threat of financial meltdown – a topic not exactly without interest in today’s chaotic investment environment.
A Conspiracy is rich in character, incident and period detail, and introduces us to a detective unique in mystery fiction. Ex-highwayman, burglar and professional pugilist, Benjamin Weaver, has settled down to a career as a “thief-taker” (essentially a bounty-hunter) and a finder of missing persons and stolen property. He is also a Jew (of Portuguese extraction by way of Amsterdam, whose family name is Lienzo), which adds an extra measure of interest to an already enthralling story, as the protagonist wrestles with his somewhat ambiguous feelings about his people, and strives to re-establish relations with his family after a long absence. Spurred by the opinion of a client that not only the client’s father, but Weaver’s own, were murdered, instead of dying, respectively, as a result of suicide and a street accident involving a drunken coachman, Weaver is quickly pulled into his father’s world of stock-jobbing, where he receives cryptic warnings from powerful men to abandon his quest for the truth. Against the backdrop of the ferocious rivalry that exists between the South Sea Company and the Bank of England, Weaver winds his way through a confusing – and deadly – labyrinth of stock speculation where enormous fortunes are made and lost overnight, and desperate men will stop at nothing to protect their interests.
One sinister and real-life historical figure who looms large in the book is Jonathan Wild, the prince of thief-takers in early 18th-century London. Wild prospered not only by “’peaching” on criminals and collecting the bounties, but through his amazing knack for recovering stolen property (for a fee). Ultimately, it transpired that Wild’s success was due to the fact that the property he recovered had been stolen by his agents in the first place, and he was eventually tried and hanged (Note: For those with a taste for 18th century prose, you might be interested in Henry Fielding's novel, Jonathan Wild; it enjoys the distinction of being perhaps the longest novel of sustained irony in the English language).
Weaver is assisted in his investigation by his friend Elias Gordon, an amiable Scottish surgeon whose fondness for gambling and the ladies keeps him in a state of perpetual penury; however, his head for logic proves invaluable to Weaver, and he is a useful, if somewhat occasionally expensive, sidekick.
I do most of my reading on the Metro, going to and coming from work every day, and this book was so good that I couldn’t wait for the day to begin so that I could pick up where I left off the night before. David Liss has written a sequel, A Spectacle of Corruption, which I haven’t read yet, but I am looking forward to doing so. He has authored a number of other books (here’s his web site), all of which appear to be worthwhile reads (Whisky Rebels looks particularly intriguing).