A Conspiracy of Paper
© 2000 David Liss
Benjamin Weaver is a man with a curious trade. Having left the family business years ago, in his early days he earned acclaim for his skills as a boxer, introducing a ‘scientific’ approach to the sport and retiring only after breaking his leg. Now he uses his intelligence and strength to different ends, serving as a quasi-detective and bill collector, sorting through mysteries, hunting down thieves, and flushing out debtors. Now Balfour, a jumped-up merchantman with delusions of nobility, is demanding Weaver’s services, albeit reluctantly. However much he might disdain Weaver for being a common Jew, Balfour believes his and Weaver’s father were both in the same business, dabbling in high finance — and that their deaths, far from being accidental, were murders. Although Weaver is dubious at first, initial probings confirm that Balfour’s claims may have merit. And so he takes up the challenge of finding out who killed his father and why, in the process crossing paths with London’s most notorious gangster and stumbling into the emerging world of high finance, where greedy men and powerful banks vie for the nation’s coffers. The result is a captivating mystery, an absolutely stunning piece of historical fiction that rivals even Bernard Cornwell for the richness of its details.
I’ve read David Liss before, as he penned one of my favorite novels from last year, The Ethical Assassin. This and Assassin seem worlds apart, and not only for their disparate settings. Liss adopts a voice in Conspiracy of Paper which is meant to evoke the style of 18th century literature and prose, with some modifications for readability. The voice is a triumph; from the first page the elegance of it entranced me. There are books so artfully written that the mere sound of the words is a pleasure to experience, and this is one them. To this Liss adds a truly labyrinthian mystery. The setting is that of the 18th century, when paper currency is gaining popularity in the form of bank notes, and governments are beginning to finance their wars and large-scale commercial projects through the issuance of bonds, or loans. Commercial enterprises like the South Sea Company reliance on selling stock to finance themselves as well, and in London people are beginning to trade bonds for stocks, moving further away from simple specie-based transactions. Money is becoming increasingly complex, and those who understand the subtleties of finance can make a killing by taking advantage of those who don’t. Weaver has never journeyed into this world before, even though his father and uncle are both tradesmen who were involved the markets. To unravel the mystery he must first understand what his father’s business was, and Liss accomplishes this by having various characters, including a comical surgeon who doubles as Weaver’s best friend and confidant, teach him the new economics. There are few souls in London in whom Weaver can place complete trust; he is exploring a labyrinth, and there are many who wish him to fail. Some take direct action against him, and others are content with subtle misdirection. The entanglements only increase as Weaver progresses further in. Having few facts to go on, he must instead rely on probabilities and instinct, guessing where the next few turns might take him…and sometimes, forcing his way through the maze’s walls to simplify things, relieving the tension with drama.
What I like most about The Ethical Assassin, beyond its quirky humor, was the thoughtful discussion Liss’ characters mull through. Assassin’s themes were veganism and anarchism, though here Liss is a bit more subdued, his target that of paper money. As the promises of payment — banknotes — supplant actual payment, and paper replaces precious metals, the imaginary seems to have triumphed over the real. Money becomes a matter of belief, not fact, and Weaver would find it difficult to take seriously were it not for the fact that seemingly harmless actions, mere crimes of paper, keep manifesting themselves in the real world, in murders, robberies, and burned homes. And however much he might find the new finances absurd, there are those who believe that the fate of the nation hinges on Weaver leaving well enough alone.
A Conspiracy of Paper is quite a feat; delightful and fascinating. Considering what I’ve read so far, Liss is rapidly becoming a favorite author.