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.
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...
(The entire section is 1864 words.)