on July 13, 2004
When we are faced with a main character like Ben Weaver, involved in performing tasks like the ones mentioned in the title of this review, we know we are in for a great ride. David Liss does not disappoint us and delivers on this implicit promise, clearly showing his gifts as a writer in the process. The author presents a highly interesting historical novel, with an intricate plot, and full of twists that will leave the readers guessing until the end. The fact that he deals with the financial markets and concepts like probability in the eighteenth century, added to the attractiveness of the story for me, since these are topics with which I have been involved throughout my studies and in my current job.
It is an era of turmoil in England; King James has been deposed and is supported by France. This is the ideal setting for criminals to operate, since confusion reigns in the country. Ben Weaver is a Jew who left his father's home and changed his name a few years ago and had a brief moment of fame as a pugilist. Now he sustains himself by working as hired help in various enterprises, most of them dealing with helping people that have fallen victims of illegal acts. Weaver, whose real name is Lienzo (those who read "The Coffee Trader" will recognize the name), tells the story that starts with a murder of sorts in which he was involved. He was trying to recover the pocketbook of Sir Owen and when faced with a murderer his only option was to strike back and kill him.
Most of the thefts in the city are orchestrated or supervised by a character named Wild, who has all kinds of ruffians working for him and who offers services similar to the ones Weaver offers. Needless to say, Wild has a much easier time recovering the goods, since he basically charges people to give them back what he stole from them. Also, Weaver is contacted by Michael Balfour, who claims that Weaver's father, who died recently in an accident, was murdered, as was Balfour's own father. Balfour hires Weaver to find out the truth and Ben ends up having to contact his uncle Miguel Lienzo and slowly going back to his Jewish roots.
The plot has considerable depth and a myriad of suspicious characters are involved in Weaver's investigations. Also, the way Liss describes the characters and settings makes it easy to visualize them clearly. His treatment of the theme of Judaism and what it meant to be member of this religion in Europe, especially England, shortly after the Inquisition is enlightening and shocking at the same time. This is a novel I thoroughly enjoyed and I am looking forward to reading the next work by this great author.
on June 21, 2004
This marvelous historical mystery fiction reads right out of the pages of today's news, with stock trading scandals still undergoing prosecution and conspiracy uppermost in most folks minds as a normal part of everyday 21st century news.
David Liss' robust and manly Jewish ex-pugilist, Ben Weaver, lives in the midst of rough times in 1719's London, a life he has chosen, apart from his heritage of Iberian/Portugese Jews settled into their own part of London then. Weaver, his pseudonym, earns his keep by seeking out and bringing to justice the criminals who trespass on the wealthy, while regaining the treasures of the wealthy for a price. His "trade" parallels that of a most corrupt pre-police enforcer, Jonathan Wild. And Weaver finds himself rival, on a small scale, to Wild's organization. This set-up alone threatens Weaver's very life, but he seems to thrive on adversity, and utilizes his unlikely friendship with a Welsh surgeon to survive the underground powers. It is when he becomes further immersed into his past, indeed the life and family he has rejected as a young man, that Weaver's greatest adventure begins, as he faces the conflicts of a man's roots, namely his Jewish foundations, while seeking to solve a mystery about stock trading in those early market days.
Liss' understanding of financial dealings makes this very hefty and informative tale a tool of education as well as entertainment. He defty employs a fast moving, high action plot to seduce the reader into what might seem dry and boring, the financial trading scene, imbuing it all with an aura of intrigue. Surely anyone who has studied the trade disasters of modern day stock exchanges can identify with the excitement and confusion of the 1719 trade market. A lesson in economics awaits the reader, as well as a grand adventure.
on April 16, 2004
Perhaps David Liss has started a new genre, the financial thriller. In the twists and turns of the tale of Benjamin Weaver, Liss allows the historical backdrop of London in 1719 and the impending scandal of the South Seas Company to dress an amazingly complex train of scandal and duplicity. Using an historical figure Jonathan Wild as the arch-villain as an 18th century Mafioso profiting from theft, prostitution and even "peaching" his own crooks to the gallows for profit when they've outlived their usefulness, Liss has a great cast of characters. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Bank of England's Bloathwait vs. the South Seas Company's Adelman serves to keep each new discovery off-balance. The other remarkable accomplishment is the amazing amount of humor that Liss scatters through the tale with Weaver's observations of various loose characters. The supporting characters of his buddy Elias who performs surgery when not too drunk, Kate Cole the un-penitant prostitute and Sir Owen gives amazing possibilities for a budding screenwriter. As Weaver seeks to find the cause for his father's death, we are constantly caught off guard with each new bogus stock or less-than-random act of violence. Cousin Miriam adds a love interest and issues of feminism to the mix. Add to this the cultural backdrop of Weaver being a Jew in Christian England, and Liss weaves an incredibly rich and complex tale that keeps our interest as the pages burn from turning. The climactic scene in the theatre as Weaver unmasks the mysterious phantom of Martin Rochester is breath taking. Bravo!
on March 2, 2004
Having recently read the Girl with a Pearl Earring, I was looking for another period piece in which to immerse myself and came across this book. Mr. Liss, an academic steeped in the literature of early eighteenth century England, is well prepared to offer us a realistic view of London, beautifully written in the rather pompous manner of the period. As observed by other reviewers, as a mystery this is a slow and convoluted tale, requiring much patience of the reader. As a pastiche guiding one through a world that is hard for modern sensibilities to appreciate, the book is a delight. I happen to be a fan of both intrigue and of learning about other periods in human history. I trust that Mr. Liss has given us the unvarnished truth about the period. His vivid descriptions of characters, manners of dress, personal hygience, and the urban setting are excellent, giving us a taste of what it must have been like to be alive during those years. I doubt that many readers would wish to inhabit the world described by this lapsed Jewish pugilist turned detective. As much as I appreciate being introduced to the sordid conditions of Georgian London, I'm very happy to live in a world where human waste is NOT thrown out the window and onto the street. You get the idea!
I recommend the book to those readers with patience to follow a complex, slowly developing story who would appreciate an unromantic treatment of a bygone era in which wealth secures great privilege, even as destitution and crime flourish on the streets. One might argue that Mr. Liss offers us a morality tale of significance to our present circumstances with the comparisons that could be drawn to conditions of wealth, poverty and crime as they exist in the modern world, but I won't press the point. Readers who follow the tale to its tawdry end will draw their own conclusions on this matter.
on January 6, 2004
I had high hopes for this book. These days I rarely read fiction, and when I do, it's usually because it is blending fictional characters with actual events. This book does a capable job of this, but I just wish there was a little more to it.
Liss certainly gets off to a rousing start and the novel is fairly intriguing most of the way. But it just seems to gradually lose steam as it moves along, particularly as the main character, Ben Weaver, just seems to become less interesting as things progress.
Weaver finds himself involved in what would become the world's first famous stock scandal, involving the South Sea Company, which was a kind of precursor of things to come in stocks. It was the first bubble stock, rising to incredible value and suddenly crashing down and taking a lot of fortunes with it.
Had the scandal actually been a more integral part of the plot, I might have liked the book better. and the ultimate resolution just wasn't all that compelling.
Still, this is an interesting, entertaining above-average read. Liss does a credible job of recreating the time period. I just would have liked to see more details about the South Sea Company Bubble scandal.
on October 20, 2003
I was generally unimpressed with this book, especially in plot & in writing.
When I read a suspense book, I expect a few properties - I expect something resembling a twist, I expect a handful of red herrings, but mostly, I expect each part to matter - all the pieces to come together in some 'clever' way. In this case, you might as well have thrown out about ten chapters. There's no real build to the final hidden information - it just shows up. I found that disappointing.
The narrative was uncreative - each chapter ended up with yet another visit to yet another person. It wasn't quite a travelogue, but why not?
More centrally, I found the writing subpar. Key pieces of what might have been interesting history were buried in purple adjectives, much of the language that wasn't supposed to be stilted was, well, stilted, and the characters had no depth - I don't expect a lot in a murder mystery, but I'd like more than a dimension or two.
I was hoping for a great read and didn't find one here.
on July 13, 2003
The first part of this one offers a mixed experience. Although author Liss seems to have the history right (his facts "feel" true) and his writing is competent and entirely workmanlike, there is a heavy-handedness about it all. The characters are rather ordinary and seem to lack life while the narrative is overly talky (emulating real eighteenth century prose?) and tells more than shows what is going on. I think Liss walked a fine line between evoking the "voice" of older times and saying too much and sometimes he seems to slip over the edge. I found the main character, Benjamin Weaver, a sephardic Jew in England whose family hails from Iberia via Holland, somewhat tiresome and rather too dull to make much of a detective and his Watson-like sidekick, Elias Gordon, a dissolute Scottish surgeon and rake with Shakespearean aspirations, overly flat. The mystery plods on for the first half of the tale, overwhelmed by a slow and cumbersome exposition, so that the main impetus to read on must come from an interest in the South Sea stock bubble itself and how it heralded a changed world of finance that is still with us today. Indeed, the background to this tale, the development of capital financing through stock markets and paper manipulations, is fascinating stuff in its own right. About half way through the book though, something happens and the mystery begins to compel. While the Jewish background often seems a bit forced (Weaver's uncle seems too perfect, the gratuitous peddler too eastern European for the period) and the array of characters (both Jewish and British) too caricatured, the pace of the tale finally does pick up as the inevitable unravelling of the situation takes on a life of its own. As Ben Weaver stumbles his way through events, and he rarely seems perspicuous enough to stand up to the behind-the-scenes players who may be manipulating him, he finally begins to break through the veil of confusion and obfuscation when he lurches into fighting mode. Still, the resolution, while satisfying when it comes in that it is somewhat of a surprise (at least I found it such), does not have the kind of emotional resonance that really appeals, the result of the flattish characters with whom we have been engaged. As a mystery this novel proves out and as an historical piece it is factually rich and fleshed out. But as a novel it was a bit too heavy-handed for my tastes. Still, it was readable and worth the time for anyone interested in this period or in the historical mystery genre. I note, too, that the author left some loose ends lying about, in anticipation perhaps of a sequel for Mr. Weaver? -- SWM
on June 15, 2003
Like most people who've read "A Conspiracy of Paper" by David Liss, I'm a big fan of historical fiction, mystery, and the growing niche of books that blend the two genres, but this one won't want recount the plot (since you probably have a good idea of what it's about) but here are a few things I liked and disliked about the book:
I enjoyed reading about Jewish characters in 1700s England. Honestly I'd never considered that there was any significant Jewish community in London at that time, and it was interesting to learn about some of the restrictions on their way of life (not allowed to own property, treated as 2nd class citizens, etc.) and to read about the protagonist Ben Weaver's struggle to fit into traditional British society and to reconcile that with his Jewish roots. It was also interesting, at least in theory, to read about early stock market scandals, particularly since more sophisticated market scams (Enron, ImClone, etc.) have been big news over the last few years.
That said, as a mystery "A Conspiracy of Paper" is pretty ho-hum. Liss barely scratches the surface of London's stock exchange, instead painting the conspiracy in the broadest of strokes. "A Conspiracy of Paper" is guilty of one of my biggest book pet peeves: The mystery isn't properly foreshadowed or woven into the plot, so it comes off somewhat coincidental and left this reader flat. Weaver's true enemy really could have been a half dozen other characters in the book, all of whom would have been at least as credible as the villain. And, I found Ben Weaver to be a pretty simple, bland and generic protagonist for this kind of books. A skilled "thief-taker" (i.e. bounty hunter), boxer, good looking, fairly successful, etc.
For a quick read or summertime beach book, you could do a lot worse than "A Conspiracy of Paper," but in all it was a pretty routine and by-the-numbers mystery dressed up in Judaism and 1700s London garb.
on March 18, 2003
I didn't read this book straight through but did use every spare minute over three days. It's a lot of fun but slightly frustrating. Lovers of historical fiction will really enjoy this book. What's good about it is the evocation of the period. Like the Aubrey/Maturin seafaring novels, dialogue and terminology of the period is used but not so heavily that the meaning of all terms isn't clear. The hero, a Jewish man of action, is different and interesting; again recalling Aubrey/Maturin, he has an engaging sidekick: a libertine Scottish surgeon with wide-ranging avocations. The plot has a strength and a weakness. The story, of intrigue and evil in the proto-stock market of the early 1700s, is inherently interesting but winds and backtracks so constantly that the reader will find it hard to follow--make that very hard. The author solves this for us by having one of the bad guys explain all in the end but even then things weren't completely clear--at least, not to me. Still, buy the paperback and sail on through; you won't be sorry. I intend to buy his latest book and look forward to more. Remember, this was his first novel.
on July 22, 2002
I give Liss a lot of credit for recreating a believable early seventeenth century London backdrop for this mystery. I also give Liss kudos for portraying a unique protagonist--an articulate Jewish ex-boxer (or pugilist as the character prefers). I found the narative engaging, credible and some of the dialogue was very entertaining: "I care not a fig for you sir".
However, Liss falls into the trap of creating a complex conspiracy that not only bewilders the protagaonist, Ben Weaver, but it bewilders the reader as well. Ben is played as the puppet by a raft of gentlemen, stock jobbers and underworld lords. Ben does not know who is pulling the strings and neither does the reader. My main bone of contention is that the whole "conspiracy" is deciphered at an end meeting with one of the puppeteers--a la an old episode of Scooby Doo. The conspirator wraps everything up into a neat little ball for Ben to mull over, but it is a far from satisfactory conclusion for the reader since the action is over by this point and all we are getting is a dialogue that explains all those loose ends. I suppose it is better than leaving the the questions unanswered, but it would have been more satisfying if Ben Weaver had puzzled some of these conspiracies out for himself.