A Conspiracy of Paper


David Liss


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

April 9, 2006

wasn't sure whether to place this review under the literature section or the mystery section. It can be read as a historical novel, since it deals with the beginning years of the English stock exchange, in 18th century London. Or, it is a mystery novel, since the hero, Benjamin Weaver, tries to determine who murdered his father, and why. Mystery or historical, this is one terrific book. Hard to believe it is Liss' first novel. I liked it even better than his The Coffee Trader.

Benjamin Weaver is a Jew, and a retired pugalist. His original profession was a boxer, but injuries forced him to retire. We learn that he has previously been a highwayman and thief, but now he acts as a private detective in London (of course, the idea of a detective has not yet been invented, but that is the career Weaver follows.) London is an incredibly violent place, full of thieves and whores and blackguards and unscrupulous gamblers. Everyone is in debt, and lives beyond their means to maintain appearances. Weaver remarks at one point that the French have come up with a new idea called police but Weaver doubts such a concept would ever be used in London. (The novel is set in 1719 London.)

Weaver's father perished recently, as did one of his close associates, Mr Balfour. Weaver suspect foul play, but how to find out who is responsible? The son of Mr Balfour comes to Weaver and voices his suspicions that the men were murdered, and hires Weaver to discover the truth. It turns out his father was a "stock jobber", one of the original brokers on the London Exchange. His father was going to write a pamphlet discussing forgeries in the stock certificates of the South Sea Company, but he died before he could publish. Is it possible someone in the South Sea Company did him in? Weaver is beset on every turn by powerful men who have ever interest in seeing him fail - or do they in fact want him to succeed? What about Bloathwaite at the Bank of England - he has long hated Weaver's father for a transaction that failed years ago, Weaver remembers him haunting his dad when he was just a child. Or Jonathan Wilde, the legendary criminal mastermind - apparently, this man really did exist. The Conspiracy of Paper is a well researched novel, it does an excellent job of portraying the London of the era, with it's wretched souls, liquor-fueled violence, anti-semetism, masked fetes, beggars, filths and stench, and everyone corrupt, from the hackney drivers to the judges. Perhaps Weaver should suspect Adelman, who dines at his uncle's house - or is he merely trying to marry Miriam, a lovely wealthy widow? It seems everyone is suspect, Weaver is always confronted by powerful men who know more than he does. His only ally is Elias, a foppish gentleman who is writing a play (and part time surgeon - he always advises Weaver that he will feel much better if only he would Elias bleed him a little.)

The plot is great. There are always new developments. The hidden agendas are revealed, the characters true colors are shown as Weaver plunges into his investigation. There is violence as persons unknown attempt to stop him. Weaver is frustrated how people know so much more than he, but refuse to reveal what they know. Who is the mysterious Martin Rochester? In the end, all is revealed, the loose ends are tied up, the motives of the players become clear. Liss based this novel upon the South Sea Company, which apparently was the first bubble stock that crashed on the London exchange. I thought this was a very good book. I think there is a sequel, A Spectacle of Corruption, which I will have to add to my extensive reading list!