David Liss: A Conspiracy of Paper

A Conspiracy of Paper: David Liss: Clearly a “first,” but despite detractors a promising one.

I usually don’t like books that begin with an explanation of their reason for being which is not tied in, in some more profound way, with the main storyline – this kind of thing strikes me as amateurish and unnecessary, even in a first person account. So, given all the glowing praise for this book (not to mention its Edgar Award), when I read its opening comment (“For some years now, the gentlemen of the book trade have pressed me in the most urgent fashion to commit my memoirs to paper”) I hoped for some spin at least remotely as unusual as that put on the story by similar openings in each of the four parts of Iain Pears‘s Instance of the Fingerpost, to which this book has been compared. Alas, I soon found that this hope was in vain, and I almost didn’t continue reading.

I am glad that I did, however, because although this is clearly a “first,” Liss tells a richly textured and, for the most part, well-researched tale. His background in both history and economics allows the author to give an interesting spin to mysteries as a genre, and to this book in particular. Despite some unnecessary phrases like the one mentioned above, he vividly conveys the atmosphere of the place and the society he describes; namely, that of 18th century London with its lawless underbelly, corrupt judges, dark alleys, ginhouses, whores and, in particular, ‘Change Alley and its coffeehouses and the prejudice against “stock-jobbing” Jews. The book’s narrator, ex-boxer Benjamin Weaver (born Benjamin Lienzo and formerly professionally known as The Lion of Judah) is a compellingly drawn character. And as a comment on the volatility of the stock market and its dangers for the uninitiated, the book couldn’t be more timely; even if its story ends before the actual burst of the so-called “South Sea Bubble.”

Unfortunately, Liss has forsaken historical accuracy in a major way in the portrayal of Miriam, Weaver’s almost-love-interest (the relationship between the two appears somewhat contrived anyway) – and he has done so against better knowledge, as he admits in the interview with fellow author Sheri Holman reproduced at the end of the book. Here, and in his representation of other women (a literate laundry lass?!) the book loses a good part of its credibility. Not only would Miriam not have had the liberty to move about in society as she does, or to freely interact with Weaver in the way that Liss portrays (not even if Weaver had unequivocally declared to his uncle his intention to marry her, which he hadn’t); she also would neither legally nor socially have been able to engage in any stock transactions. Weaver’s friend Elias, with his penchant to sink money into disastrous “get-rich-quick-schemes,” would have been a more credible victim to the fraud perpetrated there (although arguably that inclination of Elias’s is not easily reconcilable with the insightful lessons which, on the other hand, he teaches Weaver about the stock market and the “new economy”). Unfortunately, this is not just a minor and ultimately negligible aspect of the story but a key element and hence, a major detractor.

Generally speaking, though, this is a promising start, and I am looking forward to reading more books by this author. He is clearly able to draw the reader into his story, and in a mystery, this is one of the things I am looking for the most. Given his background, I just hope in the interim he’ll have learned to get rid of the unnecessary bywork and stay true to what he has researched and knows historical facts to be, particularly where it comes to the core elements of the story.


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