Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1864
The twentieth century world of electronic commerce, with hundreds of Internet companies sprouting each week and investors looking to make millions quickly, has its origins in London’s Exchange Alley of the early eighteenth century. Just as the Internet has had an enormous impact on the international economy, something entirely new—paper money—was driving the British economy of 1719. The Bank of England, repository of the nation’s wealth, and the South Sea Company, which sold essentially worthless stock, struggled for control of this new financial world with the assistance of “stock-jobbers” operating out of coffeehouses and alehouses. Most of these stock-jobbers were Jewish and were looked down upon by the society they served. In his first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss takes this background and creates an intriguing blend of historical fiction and mystery.
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Liss’s hero, Benjamin Weaver, a former thief turned acclaimed pugilist, gives up the ring after severely breaking a leg and drifts into becoming a cross between a bounty hunter, tracking down debtors and bringing felons to justice, and a private inquiry agent. Weaver’s estranged father, Samuel Lienzo, a stock-jobber, has just died after being run down by a coach, but William Balfour, whose father has supposedly committed suicide, hires the detective to look into the deaths of their fathers, convinced that both men have been murdered and that the killings are related to the financial fury of Exchange Alley.
The Bank of England and the South Sea Company, a speculative venture, are at odds over who will control the financial future of Britain. The bank collects money loaned to the government to support its military adventures and manages the dispersal of interest in exchange for monetary considerations from the treasury. The company wants to participate in brokering government loans and proposes reducing the national debt through stock conversions. It wants holders of government issues to exchange their annuities for South Sea stock. The rivalry is complicated by rumors of forged company stock infiltrating the market, unease over paper currency supplanting silver and gold, and distrust of stock-jobbers.
Weaver discovers that his father wrote a pamphlet attacking the South Sea Company’s dubious practices but died before he could have it published. The printer who published Lienzo’s previous pamphlets died in a suspicious fire that destroyed his business. Weaver finds his father’s manuscript, but it is soon stolen. Weaver must find evidence that Balfour and Lienzo have indeed been murdered, as well as discover the motives behind the killings and the identity of the killer or killers.
Liss offers several subplots interwoven with Weaver’s investigation. Sir Owen Nettleton hires him to recover some letters stolen by Kate Cole, a prostitute in the employ of the notorious Jonathan Wild, leader of London’s criminal underworld. To conduct his inquiries, Weaver must also try to heal the wounds caused by his estrangement from his father. His uncle, Miguel Lienzo, an importer/exporter who has dealings with Wild, is his primary source of information about his father’s activities. Weaver also finds himself strongly attracted to the mysterious Miriam, widow of Miguel’s son. Miriam is pursued by Sarmento, Miguel’s clerk, and Nathan Adelman, a financier with ties to the company. Conversations with his uncle, Adelman, and Sarmento, who has secretly converted to Christianity, as well as several encounters with Abraham Mendes, a boyhood acquaintance who has become Wild’s main lieutenant, force Weaver, who changed his name after running away from home, to re-examine his Jewishness.
In retrieving Sir Owen’s papers from Kate, Weaver shoots Jemmy, her thuggish companion, in self-defense. Wild, who turns in his hoodlums to the authorities when they become nuisances, has Kate arrested for Jemmy’s murder. Weaver arranges for her imprisonment to be as comfortable as possible, and Wild uses the detective’s guilt to try to manipulate him.
One of Weaver’s main suspects is Perceval Bloathwaite, a director of the Bank of England, who has been his father’s greatest enemy for years, yet Bloathwaite seems to encourage Weaver’s inquiries. Because Weaver has no understanding of finance, he constantly has his uncle, Adelman, and his best friend, Elias Gordon, a physician, explain matters to him. Gordon, a dissolute dandy with aspirations to be a playwright, is the novel’s most likable and colorful character. He acts as Dr. Watson to Weaver’s Sherlock Holmes. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s much more brilliant detective, Weaver enjoys employing disguises in his pursuit of truth and justice.
Weaver hears several references to Martin Rochester, who appears to be both a stock-jobber and a criminal, and Wild tells him that Rochester is indeed responsible for the murders of his father and Balfour. Wild encourages Weaver’s quest to try to eliminate Rochester as a rival. Tracking down Rochester is difficult, however, because no one, not even the thugs who work for him, has seen him. Is he a real man or a group of villains? Discovering his identity will resolve the mystery. Doing so is complicated by Weaver’s constantly being arrested and brought before John Duncombe, a corrupt justice of the peace, by such discoveries as Miriam’s having bought forged South Sea stock from Rochester and such accusations as Adelman’s claim that Weaver has been tricked into exposing the forgeries. London’s sporting gentlemen take wagers on the likelihood of Weaver’s survival.
Liss is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Columbia University researching, as he writes in the novel’s historical note
The ways in which eighteenth-century Britons imagined themselves through their money. After years in the archives, reading pamphlets, poems, plays, periodical essays, and long-forgotten novels, I failed to find the source that told me precisely what I wanted to know about the new finance. So I wrote one.
Liss provides not only information about the financial manipulations that led, in 1720, to the first stock market crash in the English-speaking world, but also numerous details of daily London life in the early eighteenth century. Paupers push carts of spoiled mutton through the streets. Liss presents the Mohocks, aristocratic ruffians who prey on the poor and defenseless by hacking off their limbs. He knows that the prostitutes of the day were hardly alluring spectacles, so Kate’s dress is “soiled with the leavings of customers gone by. The once-ivory muslin was now yellowish brown, and her plain tan stomacher had grown so filthy as to almost want delousing.” Liss explains how Wild, a real-life criminal who inspired Henry Fielding’s novel The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743, 1754), is the source of the term “double-crossing.” When he suspected one of his “prigs” of withholding stolen goods, he put a cross next to the person’s name in the book listing those in his employ. The cross indicated the felon was to be turned over to the courts, and when he was hanged, Wild added a second cross.
Instead of giving a slavish imitation of the style of eighteenth century English novels, Liss attempts a close approximation with occasional archaic words or expressions (“blackguard,” “for the nonce,” “bastardly gullion”) and some deliberately stilted syntax, but he makes it all easy for his readers to understand. In the postmodern style of Liss’s day, his narrative is highly self-conscious and often mocks the eighteenth century device of directly addressing the audience: “My refined readers may only know of these places [alehouses] from reports they have read.”
In addition to the historical details about the stock market and London criminal life, Liss offers a concise portrait of the anti-Semitism of the day. The gentlemen Weaver serves condescend to him, hold him responsible for what they see as the sins of Jews, and assume he will not be angered by the outrageously insulting remarks they utter in his presence: “Men who did not know I was the son of a stock-jobber frequently felt free to compliment me for having nothing to do with finance or Jewish customs, which were often imagined to be one and the same.” He must prove again and again that he is worthy of their attention.
Uncle Miguel and Adelman discourage his investigation for fear of stirring up animosity toward Jews subject to the constant risk of being expelled from the country. Weaver has an advantage over such men as his uncle, however, because at least he was born in England (foreign-born Jews are not allowed to own property in London). The churchwardens of the Church of England appoint Jews to parish positions and then fine them for not carrying out their Christian duties. The paradox, as Uncle Miguel explains, is that Englishmen “have herded us into dealing with their money for them, and they have hated us for doing what they permitted.”
Through such details, Liss tries to raise his novel a bit above typical detective stories and such historical tales as George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, which A Conspiracy of Paperresembles, although its tone is not as tongue-in-cheek. By having Weaver discover unexpected connections during his quest, Liss shows how a society’s social, political, economic, religious, and sexual concerns grow out of each other. As Weaver observes, “My father saw everything in patterns, everything as woven together—one act always engendered a hundred others.”
Still, A Conspiracy of Paper is primarily an entertainment that succeeds or fails because of the strength of its protagonist. Weaver is a quintessential detective in the American mode as an outsider and loner who distrusts all groups within his society. He is a classical hero in two senses: He has to prove himself over and over, and he is the victim of an insensitive society. He is no cardboard hero, however, owing to his propensity for rage and violence and his need for the services of prostitutes. Weaver’s ambiguous feelings about his Jewish heritage provide some complexity. Liss makes him less than brilliant—he hates reading anything other than adventure stories—as a way to work the financial details into the narrative since someone always has to explain the arcane side of the stock market to the investigator.
Perhaps Weaver is a bit slower, stiffer, and colder than Liss intends, and in that way the character resembles his creator’s storytelling skills. When Weaver says to his friend very late in the novel, “I grow tired of this matter, Elias. I must resolve it soon,” the reader can only agree. A Conspiracy of Paper is an impressive debut and often exciting, but just as often it gets bogged down in explaining things rather than dramatizing them and can be compared unfavorably in this regard to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (1994). Readers of historical, crime, or literary fiction might want matters to move a little more quickly and be more emotionally involving than is the case here.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (January 1, 2000): 834.
Library Journal 125 (January, 2000): 160.
Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2000, p. E5.
The New Leader 83 (March/April, 2000): 42.
The New York Times, February 21, 2000, p. E11.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (February 20, 2000): 34.
The New Yorker 76 (March 6, 2000): 91.
Newsweek 135 (February 14, 2000): 68.
Publishers Weekly 246 (December 13, 1999): 62.
Time 155 (February 28, 2000): 98.
The Washington Post Book World, February 6, 2000, p. 5.