The Coffee Trader
© 2003 David Liss
I never intended to return to David Liss so soon. No doubt, A Conspiracy of Paper was phenomenal — but I have two Bernard Cornwell novels just awaiting to be read! There’s something compelling about Liss’ genre, though: I’ve never encountered a thriller set in the business world before, let alone one steeped in the exciting history of Age of Discovery-era Europe. The Coffee Trader is another contribution to that setting, though here Liss moves to Amsterdam, where young Miguel Lienzo — the uncle of Conspiracy‘s main character Ben — is facing bankruptcy. But a spirited, ambitious, and altogether attractive widow has an idea for waking Europe to the wonders of coffee…and if Miguel is fleet-footed enough, he may yet rise from ruins to riches.
Schemes carry the day here. Miguel is only one of five duplicitous characters playing the exchange, and each have their own private desires and hidden plans. Some, like Miguel and the woman, are allies; others, like Solomon Parido, a leader of the Jewish community, count themselves as Miguel’s rivals. Their schemes all interact with one another, like wheels within wheels, but no one can truly say in which direction the wheels are spinning..or what ends they may accomplish. Although The Coffee Trader isn’t used by Liss to comment on an issue (unlike Conspiracy and Ethical Assassin), the mystery stands on its own. The setting is fascinating Lienzo is a Portuguese exile, a refugee from the Inquisition, and he and many other Jews have taken refuge in Amsterdam. Determined to avoid outside persecution, faithful Jews voluntarily submit to the authority of the Ma’amad, a somewhat heavy-handed council with the power to discipline members. Among many other things, it forbids Jews from doing business with ‘Gentiles’. Parido sits on this council, and Miguel secretly defies it by allying himself with the widow. Parido has his own secrets to hide from the council, and the two of them play a kind of chess match throughout, attempting to out-maneuver the other both outwardly (using the threat of the Ma’amad’s power) and subtly, through playing with the markets Eventually all comes to head in the Exchange itself, though by this point it’s clear there’s more going on than either man is aware of.
All in all, The Coffee Trader was quite well done, one to savor. My library doesn’t have any more Liss books, other than a fantasy he’s written, so I’ll be looking for them online in the coming months.