The Devil’s Company
© 2007 David Liss
Benjamin Weaver is in trouble. An ex-boxer who now works as a private detective of sorts in 18th century London, he’s made a name for himself as a man who can get things done, and occasionally attracts job offers for the sort of mischief he has no interest in….like breaking into the East India company’s headquarters and stealing papers. Though he refused that offer, there are powerful men in London and abroad who won’t take no for an answer. As The Devil’s Company opens, we find Weaver being tricked and trapped into the service of a mysterious magnate, who has gained financial leverage over not only Weaver but his friends. Though Weaver has no choice but to work for the mysterious puppetmaster, he’s also no man to passively accept his fate – and laboring to discover who the man is and what he really wants with the Company is the start of a labyrinthine mystery set in the ascendancy of Britain’s commercial empire.
I have read two previous books in this series and was impressed first by the novelty of the series – business/crime thrillers set in old London, quite different from the usual military or romantic adventures that readers of historical fiction usually get. The earlier books were particularly interesting because of the subjects of the plots themselves – the early coffee trade, or the corruption enabled by paper/fiat currency. The Devil’s Company’s focus on the East India Company and the textile’s trade was a bit less interesting to me, but the core of the mystery was still compelling, with no shortage of twists and plenty of intriguing characters, including several ones that I dearly hoped would visit the business end of Weaver’s fists before the novel’s end. The most remarkable aspect of Liss’s style in the early books was his use of 18th century dialogue, giving the book a sharper historical flavor than most; that continues here. There’s also some subtle social commentary here, and readers familiar with Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech will recognize parts of it being used, line-by-line, in one character’s speech. It’s not particularly nuanced, though: the author is using the abuses of the Company to mock economic liberalism (real liberalism) when the company existed as a creature of the state and advocated for liberalism only when it was profitable to do so. Liss doesn’t explore that hypocrisy: he only uses the company to argue that we need the state to make corporations behave. (Never mind the fact that corporations have always used the state to advance their agendas, employing lobbyists to create regulation around themselves and leveraging the state to destroy their competition and create monopolies.)
Although the subject here wasn’t nearly as compelling as coffee, I enjoyed it nontheless, and am glad to have gotten back into this series after a..er, ten year gap. Liss’ contribution to historical fiction is unique and absolutely worth reading .