Thursday, July 28, 2016

Murder and Mystery in 18th-Century London

Review: A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

This novel—David Liss’ first—won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, a Barry Award for Best First crime novel, and the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery, all in 2001. Its protagonist, ex-boxer detective Benjamin Weaver, is a Jew in London in the early 1700s, estranged from his family and unwilling to re-enter that world. He has found a comfortable niche in London’s newly-developing (and somewhat seamy) stock trade, serving as a liaison between lower-class thugs and thieves and their upper-class counterparts.

Weaver begins his memoir with the day a gentleman comes to him with a tale of murder to investigate—the victim, his own father. Despite his cool feelings for his late sire, Weaver is intrigued enough, and sufficiently in need of the money, to follow the clues. Slowly the ex-pugilist is drawn back into the shadowy corners of the stock trade, as he pursues the conspiracy that ended his father’s life.

Weaver’s dearth of feeling toward his father, and a growing fear that he may be inviting to himself the murderer’s attention, provide some motivation to cease his inquiries. There is also a certain Mr. Adelman who offers to pay him to abandon the case.
… and what objection could I offer to abandoning an inquiry into the death of a father for whom I could recall no fondness?
... before I reached the top of the staircase, I had dismissed Mr. Adelman’s offer forever. I could not say if it was because I did not relish the idea of dealing perpetually with men like Adelman, men who believed their wealth gave them not only influence and power, but also a kind of innate superiority to men such as myself. I could not say if it was because there was something compelling in the unexpected ease I had known in the presence of my uncle and aunt, or the displeasure I felt at the notion of severing a connection with a household wherein lived my cousin’s lovely widow…

Weaver’s investigation takes him to the heights of London society and to its dregs; to coffee houses and brothels, drawing rooms and gaming clubs, synagogues and bookstores. The trail he follows illuminates the early days of stock trading and publication, and eventually reveals the truth: men are willing to do many things in the pursuit of wealth, but truly ruthless men will do anything to protect their conspiracy.

The first book is followed by other tales of Benjamin Weaver: The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, and The Devil’s Company. All are excellent—readers with a taste for history, mystery and the early days of stock trading will enjoy them as much as I did.