Wednesday, June 3, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
In an earlier “Shelves” post, I reviewed a mystery novel set in the 18th century entitled A Conspiracy of Paper, by David Liss. As good as that book is, the second novel in the series is even better. A Spectacle of Corruption - featuring Liss’ hero, a retired Jewish pugilist named Benjamin Weaver, who has established himself as a thief-taker -carries us into the confusing and dangerous world of early 18th-century English politics, in which the Tory and Whig factions scheme against each other against the ominous background of a brewing Jacobite conspiracy.
Weaver takes on the case of an Anglican priest, whose efforts to help secure better working conditions for the London dock workers results in a series of threatening letters. Weaver quickly discovers that Dennis Dogmill, a powerful tobacco importer and important man in the Whig faction, is playing one labor gang against another, and when one of the labor agitators is murdered in a brawl, Weaver is framed for the crime, convicted, and sentenced to hang. Our hero, however, is not disposed to being hanged for a crime he didn’t commit, and effects an exciting escape from Newgate prison.
With the able assistance of his friend, Elias Gordon, a surgeon and would-be playwright, Weaver undergoes a make-over, acquiring a fine new wardrobe, a fashionable wig, and an invented identity as Matthew Evans, a West Indian planter who has decided to settle down in England. He sets out to discover the reason he was framed, and is drawn into the orbit of Griffin Melbury, a Tory politician (against whom Weaver harbors a secret, but serious grudge, inasmuch as he won the affection of, and married, the woman Weaver loves). Our hero also develops a respect, and, ultimately, an amorous regard, for Dogmill’s sister, which provokes the tobacco magnate – a large and violent man – into increasingly hostile remonstrances – and, eventually, actions.
As the paid witnesses at his trial start showing up dead, Weaver is pulled ever deeper into a maelstrom of intrigue, with betrayal and death around every corner, and where almost no one turns out to be exactly as he originally imagined. Additional plot twists are added with appearances by the great thief-taker (and arch-criminal) Jonathan Wild, and the Pretender, James III.
I haven’t been this excited about an 18th-century mystery series since I stumbled across the novels of the late Bruce Alexander, featuring Sir John Fielding. A Spectacle of Corruption is one of those books that you have trouble putting down, but which you also hate to finish, because the story is so enthralling. I am pleased to report that David Liss has brought out his third in the Weaver series, The Devil’s Company, which I intend to acquire, post-haste