The Coffee Trader

( 41 )


Amsterdam, 1659: On the world’s first commodities exchange, fortunes are won and lost in an instant. Miguel Lienzo, a sharp-witted trader in the city’s close-knit community of Portuguese Jews, knows this only too well. Once among the city’s most envied merchants, Miguel has suddenly lost everything. Now, impoverished and humiliated, living in his younger brother’s canal-flooded basement, Miguel must find a way to restore his wealth and reputation.

Miguel enters into a ...

See more details below
Paperback (Reprint)
$15.49 price
(Save 3%)$16.00 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (188) from $1.99   
  • New (15) from $8.25   
  • Used (173) from $1.99   
The Coffee Trader: A Novel

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$11.99 price


Amsterdam, 1659: On the world’s first commodities exchange, fortunes are won and lost in an instant. Miguel Lienzo, a sharp-witted trader in the city’s close-knit community of Portuguese Jews, knows this only too well. Once among the city’s most envied merchants, Miguel has suddenly lost everything. Now, impoverished and humiliated, living in his younger brother’s canal-flooded basement, Miguel must find a way to restore his wealth and reputation.

Miguel enters into a partnership with a seductive Dutchwoman who offers him one last chance at success—a daring plot to corner the market of an astonishing new commodity called “coffee.” To succeed, Miguel must risk everything he values and face a powerful enemy who will stop at nothing to see him ruined. Miguel will learn that among Amsterdam’s ruthless businessmen, betrayal lurks everywhere, and even friends hide secret agendas.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“AN ENTERTAINING TALE . . . [A] LEARNED PAGE-TURNER . . . Despite the many characters and plot twists, Mr. Liss keeps his story in graceful motion.”
The Wall Street Journal

“EXPERTLY PLOTTED AND EXCELLENTLY WRITTEN, and it has all the qualities readers want in novels—romance, mystery, suspense, betrayal and redemption, a feeling for how people lived in other times and places.”
The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“UNUSUAL AND DIVERTING . . . Sometimes, as the book demonstrates with a nice twist, sincerity can be the greatest means of deception.”
The New York Times Book Review

“[A] TRANSPORTING TALE OF FINANCIAL INTRIGUE . . . [Liss’s] writing is smooth and elegant—like a good cup of coffee.”
The Boston Globe


“Liss fashions a wide-ranging, labyrinthine plot. . . . He also has a historian’s eye for detail, and he creates an Amsterdam that feels very much of its time. . . . Liss’s novels are ultimately about a central truth of capitalism, which is that the system is bigger and more powerful than anyone within it. . . . The best moments of The Coffee Trader create a powerful sense of vertigo that’s something like the vertigo of finance capitalism.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Masterfully plotted, brilliantly imagined, The Coffee Trader brims with intelligence, intrigue, and suspense. David Liss has written a riveting novel about commerce and faith, loyalty and greed.”
Author of The Ladies Auxiliary

“David Liss has cornered a very narrow niche of the literary market—historical financial thrillers. And it must be said: He’s quite good at it. . . . Lienzo’s world comes to life in great (and frequently grimy) detail, and the workings of the Amsterdam bourse are eerily similar to modern commodities markets. . . . [The book is] more latte than espresso, and all the more enjoyable as a result.”
San Francisco Chronicle

The Coffee Trader is a very fine piece of historical fiction, and also a uniquely resonant one. . . . David Liss makes the foreign familiar as he immerses the reader in a bustling and intrigue-ridden past.”
The Denver Post

AS ERRATIC AS THE DRINK ITSELF. . . .The Coffee Trader paints an evocative picture of Dutch life in the 1600s. Miguel Lienzo’s thrilling flim-flam schemes in coffee bean speculation and Liss’s insightful commentary on paper-tiger consortiums are rendered real and relevant. . . . Throughout Trader, Miguel remains a befuddling and charming rogue.”
Austin American-Statesman

“Good to the last drop . . . Chock full of intrigue, suspense, and financial shenanigans . . . Liss transports the reader back in time . . . handl[ing] the seventeenth century and all the nuances of Dutch culture with utter ease. Whether it’s his portrayal of the Ma’amad, the restrictive governing body of Miguel’s Jewish community, or the complex characters appearing throughout the novel, The Coffee Trader is an excellent example of historical fiction in its finest form.”
The MetroWest Daily News

“The premise and setting of The Coffee Trader is unique, with smaller-scale historical detail as richly rewarding as Liss’s remarkable first work, A Conspiracy of Paper.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune

“Each player in this complex thriller has a hidden agenda, and the twists and turns accelerate as motives gradually become clear.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A NOVEL OVERFLOWING WITH INTRIGUE AND DUPLICITY . . .Once you’ve wandered the back alleys of Amsterdam with David Liss, you’ll never look at your morning cup of coffee the same way again!”
Author of The Dress Lodger
and The Mammoth Cheese

“In his second novel, David Liss creates his own genre: the historical noir. The seventeenth-century Amsterdam he depicts is a wonderfully dark city of secrets, roiling with deceitful maneuverings and caffeine-fueled perils. The Coffee Trader is vivid, utterly absorbing, and more than a little relevant to our current age of financial skulduggery.”
Author of Extravagance

The Coffee Trader is riveting as a historical re-creation, compelling as a tale, and relevant both about the morality of community—in this case, Jewish community—and about the ethical corruptions of an economy where value is a function of perception, competition, and, above all, manipulation.”
Author of Sacrifice of Isaac and Sea of Green

“Liss provides plenty of unexpected twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention glued to the page.”
Book Street USA

The Washington Post
That sense of characters being subject to forces they cannot master is, in fact, the great strength of The Coffee Trader, as it was of A Conspiracy of Paper. Liss's novels are ultimately about a central truth of capitalism, which is that the system is bigger and more powerful than anyone within it. Sometimes that works to a trader's advantage, as he reaps an unplanned windfall, and sometimes it destroys him. In either case, whatever security he has is tenuous. The best moments of The Coffee Trader create a powerful sense of vertigo that's something like the vertigo of finance capitalism, where is there no end to the trading and no firm foundation, just an ever-receding spiral of value. — James Surowiecki
Penelope Mesic
Like his successful debut, A Conspiracy of Paper, Liss's new book is historical fiction that follows the ins and outs of commerce, this time in the Jewish community of seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Well-plotted and solidly researched, the book is able but ponderous, written in a style that avoids anachronisms but never seems quite colloquial. Miguel Lienzo, driven out of Portugal by the Inquisition, has already made and lost a fortune. He now seeks to recoup his losses by secretly trading in a bitter but stimulating new drink. Treacherous moneylenders and fellow traders, including his own envious brother, must be outwitted and creditors must be sidestepped, all in a swirl of secret meetings and falsely labeled cargoes. Like many a modern trader, Miguel has the ingenuity and vitality of a man who never knows, when he leaves for work, whether he will be a mogul or a pauper when he comes home.
Publishers Weekly
Liss's first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, was sketched on the wide canvas of 18th-century London's multilayered society. This one, in contrast, is set in the confined world of 17th-century Amsterdam's immigrant Jewish community. Liss makes up the difference in scale with ease, establishing suspense early on. Miguel Lienzo escaped the Inquisition in Portugal and lives by his wits trading commodities. He honed his skills in deception during years of hiding his Jewish identity in Portugal, so he finds it easy to engage in the evasions and bluffs necessary for a trader on Amsterdam's stock exchange. While he wants to retain his standing in the Jewish community, he finds it increasingly difficult to abide by the draconian dictates of the Ma'amad, the ruling council. Which is all the more reason not to acknowledge his longing for his brother's wife, with whom he now lives, having lost all his money in the sugar trade. Miguel is delighted when a sexy Dutch widow enlists him as partner in a secret scheme to make a killing on "coffee fruit," an exotic bean little known to Europeans in 1659. But she may not be as altruistic as she seems. Soon Miguel is caught in a web of intricate deals, while simultaneously fending off a madman desperate for money, and an enemy who uses the Ma'amad to make Miguel an outcast. Each player in this complex thriller has a hidden agenda, and the twists and turns accelerate as motives gradually become clear. There's a central question, too: When men manipulate money for a living, are they then inevitably tempted to manipulate truth and morality? Agent, Darhansoff and Verrill. (Mar. 11) Forecast: The current unstable financial markets give Liss's tale added resonance. Reviews should be plentiful. Nine-city author tour; rights sold in Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and the U.K. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Miguel Lienzo is down on his luck in Amsterdam in 1659. Not only has he lost his fortune in the sugar market, but while attempting to recoup his losses by trading in brandy, he also lands himself so deeply in debt that he must relinquish his fine house in the affluent neighborhood on the Rozengracht canal to live in his brother's basement. When a pretty and enterprising widow offers him the chance to regain his fortune and his status by cornering the market in the new commodity of coffee, he jumps at the chance despite the laws forbidding Jews to act as agents for gentiles. This golden opportunity, however, plunges him into a shadowy world of plots and counterplots among traders on the Amsterdam Exchange and members of the rigidly claustrophobic Portuguese Jewish community. As in A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, Liss creates a vivid portrait of high finance and religion. But the Byzantine plot and the complexities of futures trading dilute the suspense instead of creating it. Although The Coffee Trader lacks the narrative punch of Liss's previous novel, it will appeal to those interested in finance and sophisticated readers of historical fiction. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/02.]-Cynthia Johnson, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, MA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Second-novelist Liss moves from 18th-century London to the mercantile culture of mid-17th-century Amsterdam. The protagonist is Miguel Lienzo (a peripheral figure in A Conspiracy of Paper, 2000), a Portuguese Jew who has found both escape from the Inquisition and multiple opportunities for import and trade in the thriving Dutch metropolis. When one of Miguel’s clients, smoldering widow Geertruid Damhuis, introduces him to the pleasures of coffee, he senses an opportunity—and soon conceives a scheme (to be funded by Geertruid) to import the exotic new beverage, artificially manipulate its value, and realize a handsome profit. It’s a heady premise, and Liss handles both its details and the period’s thick ambience with considerable skill. But the narrative lags. Virtually every scene is clogged with "backstory"—lengthy explanatory flashbacks that focus on both Miguel’s personal history and his relationships with other major characters. These latter include: Miguel’s pinch-penny brother Daniel and his pregnant wife Hannah (a "secret Catholic," secretly attracted to her brother-in-law); the vindictive specter of Joachim Waagener, a trader ruined by the collapse in sugar prices that also took Miguel’s first fortune; Solomon Parido, Lienzo’s declared enemy ever since Miguel eluded a contract to wed his daughter; and Alonzo Alferonda, a wily moneylender whose interpolated "Factual and Revealing Memoirs" offer an indeed revealing outside perspective on Miguel’s experiences. There are several centers of real interest: Miguel’s command appearance before the Ma’amad, the regulatory council that oversees Jews’ activities in this stranger country; a vivid climax at the Amsterdam Exchange,where Miguel turns tables on would-be betrayers and rivals; and back-alley intrigues involving a pair of variously employed servants. But the story is too long, and its tensions ebb and flow with frustrating regularity. A vigorous display of the author’s mastery of his material, though it lacks the novelty and strong narrative drive of its terrific predecessor. Author tour
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375760907
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/3/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 157,297
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

David  Liss

David Liss is the author of A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He has a graduate degree in English literature from Columbia University, as well as an M.A. from Georgia State University and a B.S. from Syracuse University. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and daughter, and can be reached via his website,

Read More Show Less
    1. Hometown:
      San Antonio, Texas
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 16, 1966
    2. Place of Birth:
      Englewood, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      B.S., M.A., M.Phil.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

It rippled thickly in the bowl, dark and hot and uninviting. Miguel
Lienzo picked it up and pulled it so close he almost dipped his nose into the tarry liquid. Holding the vessel still for an instant, he breathed in, pulling the scent deep into his lungs. The sharp odor of earth and rank leaves surprised him; it was like something an apothecary might keep in a chipped porcelain jar.

“What is this?” Miguel asked, working through his irritation by pushing at the cuticle of one thumb with the nail of the other. She knew he had no time to waste, so why had she brought him here for this nonsense? One bitter remark after another bubbled up inside him, but Miguel let loose with none of them. It wasn’t that he was afraid of her, but he often found himself going to great lengths to avoid her displeasure.

He looked over and saw that Geertruid met his silent cuticle mutilation with a grin. He knew that irresistible smile and what it meant: she was mightily pleased with herself, and when she looked that way it was hard for Miguel not to be mightily pleased with her too.

“It’s something extraordinary,” she told him, gesturing toward his bowl.
“Drink it.”

“Drink it?” Miguel squinted into the blackness. “It looks like the devil’s piss, which would certainly be extraordinary, but I’ve no desire to know what it tastes like.”

Geertruid leaned toward him, almost brushing up against his arm. “Take a sip and then I’ll tell you everything. This devil’s piss is going to make both our fortunes.”

It had begun not an hour earlier, when Miguel felt someone take hold of his arm.

In the instant before he turned his head, he ticked off the unpleasant possibilities: rival or creditor, an abandoned lover or her angry relative, the Danish fellow to whom he’d sold those Baltic grain futures with too enthusiastic a recommendation. Not so long ago the approach of a stranger had held promise. Merchants and schemers and women had all sought Miguel’s company, asking his advice, craving his companionship,
bargaining for his guilders. Now he wished only to learn in what new shape disaster would unfold itself.

He never thought to stop walking. He was part of the procession that formed each day when the bells of the Nieuwe Kerk struck two, signaling the end of trading on the Exchange. Hundreds of brokers poured out onto the Dam, the great plaza at Amsterdam’s center. They spread out along the alleys and roads and canal sides. Along the Warmoesstraat, the fastest route to the most popular taverns, shopkeepers stepped outside,
donning wide-brimmed leather hats to guard against damp that rolled in from the Zuiderzee. They set out sacks of spices, rolls of linen,
barrels of tobacco. Tailors and shoemakers and milliners waved men inside; sellers of books and pens and exotic trinkets cried out their wares.

The Warmoesstraat became a current of black hats and black suits,
speckled only with the white of collars, sleeves, and stockings or the flash of silver shoe buckles. Traders pushed past goods from the Orient or the New World, from places of which no one had heard a hundred years before. Excited like schoolboys set free of the classroom, the traders talked of their business in a dozen different languages. They laughed and shouted and pointed; they grabbed at anything young and female that crossed their path. They took out their purses and devoured the shopkeepers’ goods, leaving only coins in their wake.

Miguel Lienzo neither laughed nor admired the commodities set out before him nor clutched at the soft parts of willing shop girls. He walked silently, head down against the light rain. Today was, on the Christian calendar, the thirteenth day of May, 1659. Accounts on the Exchange closed each month on the twentieth; let a man make what maneuvers he liked, none of it mattered until the twentieth, when the credits and debits of the month were tallied and money at last changed hands. Today things had gone badly with a matter of brandy futures, and Miguel now had less than a week to pluck his fat from the fire or he would find himself another thousand guilders in debt.

Another thousand. He already owed three thousand. Once he had made double that in a year, but six months ago the sugar market collapsed,
taking Miguel’s fortune with it. And then–well, one mistake after another. He wanted to be like the Dutch, who regarded bankruptcy as no shame. He tried to tell himself it did not matter, it was only a little while longer until he undid the damage, but believing that tale required an increasing effort. How long, he wondered, until his wide and boyish face turned pinched? How long until his eyes lost the eager sparkle of a merchant and took on the desperate, hollow gaze of a gambler? He vowed it would not happen to him. He would not become one of those lost souls,
the ghosts who haunted the Exchange, living from one reckoning day to the next, toiling to secure just enough profit to keep their accounts afloat for one more month when surely all would be made easy.

Now, with unknown fingers wrapped around his arm, Miguel turned and saw a neatly dressed Dutchman of the middling ranks, hardly more than twenty years of age. He was a muscular wide-shouldered fellow with blond hair and a face almost more pretty than handsome, though his drooping mustache added a masculine flair.

Hendrick. No family name that anyone had ever heard. Geertruid Damhuis’s fellow.

“Greetings, Jew Man,” he said, still holding on to Miguel’s arm. “I hope all goes well for you this afternoon.”

“Things always go well with me,” he answered, as he twisted his neck to see if any prattling troublemaker might lurk behind him. The Ma’amad,
the ruling council among the Portuguese Jews, forbade congress between
Jews and “inappropriate” gentiles, and while this designation could prove treacherously ambiguous, no one could mistake Hendrick, in his yellow jerkin and red breeches, for anything appropriate.

“Madam Damhuis sent me to fetch you,” he said.

Geertruid had played at this before. She knew Miguel could not risk being seen on so public a street as the Warmoesstraat with a Dutchwoman,
particularly a Dutchwoman with whom he did business, so she sent her man instead. There was no less risk to Miguel’s reputation, but this way she could force his hand without even showing her face.

“Tell her I haven’t the time for so lovely a diversion,” he said. “Not just now.”

“Of course you do.” Hendrick grinned widely. “What man can say no to
Madam Damhuis?”

Not Miguel. At least not easily. He had difficulty saying no to
Geertruid or to anyone else–including himself–who proposed something amusing. Miguel had no stomach for doom; disaster felt to him like an awkward and loose suit. He had to force himself each day to play the cautious role of a man in the throes of ruin. That, he knew, was his true curse, the curse of all former Conversos: in Portugal he had grown too used to falseness, pretending to worship as a Catholic, pretending to despise Jews and respect the Inquisition. He had thought nothing of being one thing while making the world believe he was another.
Deception, even self-deception, came far too easily.

“Thank your mistress but give her my regrets.” With reckoning day soon upon him, and new debts to burden him, he would have to curb his diversions, at least for a while. And there had been another note this morning, a strange anonymous scrawl on a torn piece of paper. I want my money. It was one of a half dozen or so Miguel had received in the last month. I want my money. Wait your turn, Miguel would think glumly, as he opened each of these letters, but he was unnerved by the terse tone and uneven hand. Only a madman would send such a message without a name–for how could Miguel respond even if he had the money and even if he were inclined to use what little he had for something so foolish as paying debts?

Hendrick stared, as though he couldn’t understand Miguel’s good, if thickly accented, Dutch.

“Today is not the day,” Miguel said, a bit more forcefully. He avoided speaking too adamantly to Hendrick, whom he had once seen slam a butcher’s head into the stones of the Damplatz for selling Geertruid rancid bacon.

Hendrick gazed at Miguel with the special pity men of the middle rank reserved for their superiors. “Madam Damhuis told me to inform you that today is the day. She tells me that she will show you something, and when you set your eyes on it, you will forever after divide your life into the time before this afternoon and the time after.”

The thought of her disrobing flashed before him. That would be a lovely divide between the past and the future and would certainly be worth setting aside his business for the afternoon. However, Geertruid loved to play at these games. There was little chance she meant to take off as much as her cap. But there was no getting rid of Hendrick, and urgent as his troubles might be, Miguel could make no deals with this Dutchman lurking in his shadow. It had happened before. He would trail Miguel from tavern to tavern, from alley to canal side, until Miguel surrendered. Best to have this over with, he decided, so he sighed and said he would go.

With a sharp gesture of his neck, Hendrick led them off the ancient cobbled street and across the steep bridges toward the new part of the city, ringed by the three great canals–the Herengracht, the
Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht–and then toward the Jordaan, the most rapidly growing part of town, where the air echoed with the ring of hammer on anvil and the chipping of chisel on stone.

Hendrick led him along the waters of the Rozengracht, where barges pierced the thick canal mist as they headed toward the docks to unload their goods. The new houses of the newly wealthy stood on either side of the murky water, facing the oak- and linden-lined waterway. Miguel had once rented the better part of so fine a house, red-brick and steeple-gabled. But then Brazilian production of sugar had far exceeded
Miguel’s expectations. He’d been gambling on low production for years,
but suddenly Brazilian farmers unleashed an unexpected crop, and in an instant prices collapsed. A great man of the Exchange as instantly became a debtor living off his brother’s scraps.

Once they departed from the main street, the Jordaan lost its charm. The neighborhood was new–where they stood had been farmland only thirty years before–but already the alleyways had taken on the decrepit cast of a slum. Dirt replaced the cobblestones. Huts made of thatch and scraps of wood leaned against squat houses black with tar. The alleys vibrated with the hollow clacking of looms, as weavers spun from sunup until late into the night, all in the hope of earning enough to keep their bellies full for one more day.

In moments of weakness, Miguel feared that poverty would claim him as it had claimed the wretched of the Jordaan, that he would fall into a well of debt so deep he would lose even the dream of recovering himself.
Would he be the same man then–himself, yet penniless–or would he become as hollow as the beggars and luckless laborers he passed on the streets?

He assured himself it would not happen. A true merchant never gives in to gloom. A man who has lived as a Secret Jew always has one more trick to save his skin. At least until he fell into the clutches of the
Inquisition, he reminded himself, and there was no Inquisition in
Amsterdam. Just the Ma’amad.

But what was he doing here with this inscrutable Dutchman? Why had he allowed his will to collapse when he had business, important business,
to pursue?

“To what sort of place are you taking me?” Miguel asked, hoping to find a reason to excuse himself.

“A miserable sort of place,” Hendrick said.

Miguel opened his mouth to voice an objection, but it was too late. They had arrived.

Though he was not, like the Dutch, inclined to believe in omens, Miguel would later recall that his venture had begun in a place called the
Golden Calf, surely an unpromising name. They climbed down a steep and viciously low-ceilinged stairwell to the cellar, a little room that might comfortably have held thirty souls but now contained perhaps fifty. The choking smoke of cheap West Indian tobacco and musty peat stoves nearly suppressed the scent of spilled beer and wine, old cheese,
and the odor of fifty unwashed men–or, rather, forty men and ten whores–whose mouths puffed out onions and beer.

At the bottom of the stairs, an enormous man, shaped remarkably liked a pear, blocked their passage, and sensing that someone wished to get by he moved his bulk backwards to prevent anyone from squeezing past. He held a tankard in one hand and a pipe in the other, and he shouted something incomprehensible to his companions.

“Move your monstrous bulk, fellow,” Hendrick said to him.

The man turned his head just enough to register his scowl and then looked away.

“Fellow”–Hendrick tried again–“you are the hard turd in the ass of my journey. Don’t make me apply a purgative to flush you out.”

“Go piss in your breeches,” he answered, and then belched laughter in his friends’ faces.

“Fellow,” said Hendrick, “turn around and see to whom you speak so rudely.”

The man did turn around, and as he saw Hendrick the grin melted from his jowly three-days-unshaved face. “Begging your pardon,” he said. He pulled his cap down off his head and moved quickly out of the way,
knocking clumsily into his friends.

This newfound humility wasn’t enough to satisfy Hendrick, who reached out like the lash of a whip and grabbed the man’s filthy shirt. The tankard and pipe fell to the floor. “Tell me,” Hendrick said, “should I
crush your throat or not crush your throat?”

“Not crush,” the drunk suggested eagerly. His hands flapped like bird wings.

“What do you say, Jew Man?” Hendrick asked Miguel. “Crush or not crush?”

“Oh, let him go,” Miguel answered wearily.

Hendrick released his grip. “The Jew Man says to let you go. You remember that, fellow, next time you think to toss a dead fish or rotten cabbage at a Jew. A Jew has saved your hide today, and for no good reason, too.” He turned to Miguel. “This way.”

Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays

A conversation with David Liss, author of The Coffee Trader

Q: You’ve been credited with creating a new genre–the historical financial thriller. Tell us about the plot of THE COFFEE TRADER, and what, precisely characterizes a historical financial thriller.

A: The novel centers around Miguel Lienzo, who is a first generation refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition. He's come to Amsterdam to escape persecution, and he becomes entangled in some of the new and exceedingly crooked methods of investment being practiced on the Amsterdam Exchange. When the novel opens, he's been financially ruined, and he's trying to restore his fortunes with a very dangerous scheme to corner the market on coffee just as coffee is first emerging in Europe.

I wanted this novel to function as a very exciting thriller, but I didn't want to rely on big terrors like death, destruction, conquest and so forth. Instead, I wanted it to revolve around the little terrors that most of us have actually experienced: the fear of being caught in a lie, the fear of financial ruin, etc. I set these concerns within the specific historical context of 17th century Amsterdam in part to take advantage of the strange financial rules of the day, which made it possible to write an exciting novel, and in part to show the similarities with today's corrupt markets.

Q: How would you relate the manipulation of coffee futures in Amsterdam, 1659 with today’s financial scandals like Enron and Imclone?

A: I find the similarities between 17th century financial manipulation and today's financial manipulation astonishing. In the 17th century, small groups of schemerscould take control of a market of a commodity by plotting among themselves, and it is easy to look back and say that they could get away with it since there were relatively few participants in the market, and there was nothing like mass communication. With financial schemes today, there are usually hundreds of people in the loop, these machinations are visible to market watchers, and we have instantaneous communication. I think what this really demonstrates is that the desire to cheat and the willingness to be cheated are fairly constant features of any thriving market.

Q: You have a knack for writing about pivotal moments in business history that resonate with business news today. What interests you about the history of finance?

A: Finance is interesting because of the central role that money plays in modern culture. It shapes and defines our lives and our society. As a historical novelist, I want to write books that capture times that are many ways alien to us now, and those moments that witness major changes in the nature of finance seem to me great flashpoints of change. In the 17th and 18th centuries, people were just beginning to understand themselves through the lens of money. Money was in the process of changing from a metaphor for immutable wealth (principally land) to a goal in itself, and that meant that an entirely new class of people had access to wealth. But rather than simply write about how people relate to, desire and manipulate wealth, I'm interested in how new modes of making money change the way people look at the world, their relationships and themselves.

Q: We take coffee for granted today. However in Amsterdam, 1659, the place and time your book is set, it is an exotic beverage. Would Miguel Lienzo, your protagonist ever envisioned Starbucks on every corner? Can you talk about how coffee rose from obscurity to ubiquity?

A: One of the things that I've come to realize in working on this book is that all human cultures have social beverages, and coffee, as a stimulating drink, is a perfect match for social gatherings. Miguel recognizes that coffee and commerce go naturally together, but I'm not sure that even he would have foreseen the central role coffee played and plays in modern life.

Coffee comes originally from Ethiopia, and it spread to the Middle East in large part because Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol, so coffee was a natural social drink for them. Coffee houses in the late medieval and early modern Islamic world were hotbeds of political discussion and dissent, and so were always controversial. When it first arrived in Europe, coffee was understood as a medicine, and was often prescribed by pharmacists for ailments like jaundice or gout, but by the middle of the century, a few cities in Europe had coffee "taverns" where businessmen and intellectuals would congregate. By the end of the 17th century, there would be coffee houses across Europe, and they would be central gathering points for men of commerce, letters, and politics.

Q: You wrote A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER as a murder mystery, but THE COFFEE TRADER has a very different structure. Can you talk about your relationship with the mystery genre? Are you moving away from mysteries?

A: I enjoy reading and writing mysteries, but I enjoy reading and writing other sorts of things as well. When I started The Coffee Trader, I knew only that I wanted to set the book in 17th century Amsterdam -- and very little else. Since I'd made the argument in my first book that detective work, as we know it today, could only have evolved in the 18th century, I had boxed myself out of the option of writing a mystery unless I wanted to get into a long and protracted debate with myself. What I liked about writing this novel was that it functions like a mystery without there being a murder at the center. As I developed it, it occurred to me that many of my favorite novels have this same structure: Pride and Prejudice, Tom Jones, The Sister Carrie. You read to find out what emotional truth or material facts have been kept from the readers or the characters. Plot itself is almost always a mystery, with the resolution as the "what done it." Genre mysteries do what most novels do, only they do it more overtly.

Q: Why did you choose to write about this particular time and place in history — and why did you choose to write about coffee?

A: When I was working on my doctorate in 18th century British literature, I became very interested in the Netherlands in the 17th century because the 18th century British were interested in that time and place. The Dutch had been the economic and political miracle of their time, and the British wanted to emulate that culture in many ways. When it came time to start thinking about a second novel, I knew I finally had the freedom to research any area that interested me, so I decided to peruse this project. The interest in coffee came later. I first decided that I wanted to write about a merchant attempting to establish a monopoly on a newly emerging commodity. I found out that there were two first coming into their own in this period: coffee and chocolate. Chocolate had about a thirty year head start on coffee, so there was more written about it, and I became seduced by the availability of primary materials. But when I had a fairly solid draft finished, I realized the book was edgy and tense and nervous -- and I then realized it had been about coffee all along.

Q: The historical novel seems to be more popular than ever before. Do you have any thoughts about why the public is turning to history?

A: People have been reading a writing historical fiction for a very long time now. If it is more popular than ever, it is probably because of an enhanced understanding that we now have of the ways in which culture circulates in various periods of history. A lot of the theoretical/historical thinking of the past decade or so has enabled us to at least make the effort to separate ourselves from our own moment and imagine an alien one. In the past, historical fiction often did little more than plugged essentially modern people into historical settings. Today there are more and more sophisticated novelists who are striving to get a nuanced sense of how people of the past might have actually thought and felt and lived. I think readers enjoy these books because they give them a kind of insight that traditional history often cannot. Historians can try to tell us what happened, but novelists can try to tell us about the experience of what happened.

Q: THE COFFEE TRADER seems to suggest that there is an inherent relationship between financial canniness and duplicity. Do you think that is true? Was it more true in the past or today?

A: There certainly was such a relationship on the Amsterdam exchange in the 17th century. Merchants would have to lie constantly, and they would have to try to separate the lies they heard from the truth. Trading on the exchange often became a matter of guessing who was telling the truth and who was lying in order to manipulate the value of a commodity. In today's financial world, there's still plenty of deception, but it is generally less overt. Less lying, more "spinning."

Q: A significant number of historical novels are populated by characters who are familiar to contemporary readers. Your book, however, contains only passing references to famous Amsterdamers of the Golden Age (e.g. Spinoza, Rembrandt, etc). Have you made a conscious decision to avoid canonical figures?

A: A lot of reader, and I'm certainly one of them, enjoy seeing historical figures show up in novels, but I've chosen to avoid that sort of thing because I'm more interested in trying to recreate the lives or ordinary men and women than I am in providing an all-encompassing history lesson of a time and place. In some ways, I find it frustrating when I read novels in which the protagonist just happens to know everyone who would be selected by history as important, or someone who just happens upon famous people in a picaresque journey. Besides, when writing about people who actually lived, a novelist is burdened by the historical record. If I get a great idea for doing something with the story, I want to be able to do that rather than say, "Oh, it was a great idea, but I can't have Spinoza kill Rembrandt because that’s not the way history really played out." If I want my philosopher to kill my painter, then that's what I'm going to have happen.

From the Hardcover edition.
Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1) The Coffee Trader is a novel in which moral, ethical, and emotional choices are often bound up with monetary and financial choices. How do financial dealings shape or define character? Does this novel suggest a relationship between financial dealings and morality?

2) Miguel, the novel’s central character, often makes some questionable choices even though he regards himself as essentially honest and upstanding. Do you think he is a good person or a bad person? Why do you think so? What about Geertruid?

3) Given the degree to which The Coffee Trader depicts merchants tricking and deceiving one another, do you think trade on the
Amsterdam Exchange inherently deceptive, or is it simply trade in which some people choose to behave deceptively? How do the activities on the Exchange influence the lives of traders when they are off the Exchange? Can merchants effectively rope off financial deception as one aspect of their lives and behave ethically elsewhere?

4) How does the setting of this novel—Amsterdam and its various communities and locales—affect the novel? How does the setting influence the events, the characters? Is the setting familiar or alien to you? In what ways are the lives of people in seventeenthcentury
Amsterdam familiar to you, and in what ways are they unlike people today? What surprised you most about the way people lived?

5) There are a number of people in The Coffee Trader who are out to harm Miguel, or at the very least trick and manipulate him toward their own ends. Given that virtually no one is truly trustworthy,
do you think that this novel has a central villain? Who? How should villainy be defined?

6) Is Hannah a modern character in a pre-modern situation, or do you think her view of herself, the world, and her options are rooted in a particularly seventeenth-century perspective? What exactly are her goals? How would a contemporary woman in her situation respond?

7) Discuss the role of the Ma’amad in Amsterdam’s Jewish community.
What is the relationship between the Ma’amad and the
Inquisition in Portugal?

8) In his interview, the author mentions that this book was originally going to center on chocolate instead of coffee. How do you think it would have been different if chocolate had remained at the center?

9) Discuss Miguel’s commitment to religious observance. What motivates his devotion? Do you think of him as being particularly religious? Does his attachment to worship and the Jewish community affect how you feel about him?

10) Reviewers have called this novel a thriller, though it lacks many of the traditional characteristics of one—no one gets killed,
people are rarely placed in physical danger. Is this novel a thriller?
How does it work to keep the reader anxious about the fates of the characters?

11) Discuss the novel’s ending. Why do you believe the author made the choices he did in the various resolutions of the plot threads? Do these characters get what they deserve? Why or why not?

12) How is the kind of financial deception in The Coffee Trader like or unlike what we see in our own times? Is what happens on the
Amsterdam Exchange similar to scandals like Enron or World-
Com? Is the difference just a matter of scale?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 41 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 41 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 2, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    The Business remains the same

    Another of David Liss's awesome page turners which, while on the one hand provides grade A entertainment, at the same time manages to educate, as you follow his charecters down the shadowy Amsterdam back alleys and into the financial centers during a time which pre-saged the Wall Street age.

    J.R. Locke, Author of
    Down and Out in Manhattan, a New York Tale &
    Possible Twenty, a Gangster Tale

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2013

    Good Read

    I have written a review on Goodreads.
    I liked this book about Amsterdam's trade exchange, Miguel, a trader and Jew, and the introduction of coffee to Europe. Some people ate the beans, some mixed the beans with boiled milk and others let hot water drip over the beans.
    This author is a talented writer who made very few mechanics errors. His style resembled the comings and goings and the ups and downs of the trade market. His characters were well developed. Three stars is an excellent rating in my opinion. Thank you for a good read, Mr. Liss.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 15, 2012

    Somewhere Along the way I Simply Lost Interest. . .

    David Liss is very discriptive in his writings. Having previously read the Whiskey Rebels and The Twelfth Enchantment (and completly enjoying them), I thought I was in for a real treat with The Coffee Trader. Unfortunately, this tale never took off for me. I was well into the book (pg 140), when I thought it would take off. Though slightly more interesting, I could not get into it. (Maybe it was me.) Very thorough; very discriptive; historically accurate; always well written, but this book, The Coffee Trader, just never caught my imagination or interest.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Just As Good The Second Time

    This is David Liss second novel, and once again it is a great read. Liss is very good at developing characters that are believable in their actions and perform the way you expect them to in each situation they face. His ability
    to place you in the time and setting of the novel is also very thorough. Before reading this book I knew little or nothing about Amsterdam of 1659. By the end I felt like I knew the city, it's customs, and people, as if I had first hand knowledge of them. His plotting also moves smoothly to a exciting,surprising,and very logical ending. An historical fiction that has a true literary sense to it. A step above just an historical novel a great read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 21, 2010

    Good To The Last Drop!

    A great read from cover to cover. The character development was subtle with perfect timing. One got to know the characters personalities gradually and with better understanding as each one dealt with their own conflict.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

    Good Book

    good book for book clubs

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 3, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Intrigruing I could smell the coffee!

    This novel with the most interesting characters,plots and themes was good reading with my coffee!David Liss is a gifted author with a smooth style.The persona of Miguel wove a complicated individual. With the plots of his brother,Daniel,his threating relations with other colorful characters and the questionable innocence of Hannah it was a novel to hold my attention. The ending was somewhat surprising and not what I'd expected.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2008

    Liss is an Outstanding Writer

    After reading Liss' first historical novel, I was impressed enough to go right out and get this one. I was not disappointed. This book pulls you into a time and place that most of us know very little about, which is the great fun of historical fiction. I've already bought his third novel and look forward to another romp through time.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2008

    An unexpected pleasure!

    I was gifted this book as a bargain-bin find that my grandmother thought might interest me---not the most auspicious of recommendations, but I was intrigued enough by the premise to read it. I'm so glad I did, and I will definitely seek out more of his books. If you enjoy historical fiction such as Philippa Gregory or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, you will certainly enjoy the fast-paced plot of The Coffee Trader. Liss manages his complicated threads well, and despite lots of unexpected twists, he carries the reader along without confusion but also without giving away the end. A highly recommended read!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2006

    Coffee Anyone?

    I could not put this book down. This is the first book of David Liss' that I read and when I finished it I ran out and bought The Conspiracy of paper and A Spectacle of Corruption. I absolutely Loved it!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2006

    Great look into the genesis of both the stock market, and coffee.

    Great characters and of course an even better storyline from Liss. Definitely recommend this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2005

    A Romp Through the Richest Stock Market?

    In the 16-hundreds Amsterdam was the richest city in Europe. The exchange of paper representing commodities was advanced to near perfection, but the difficulties of keeping track of what was traded allowed for speculation to turn into conspiracy. Luckily for the readers, none of our money is at risk, but here lies a painles education in free trade. Is the story good? You bet. Coffee is being introduced in Europe, and trading in the beans is the hook for the story. All the characters are pulled about by there own flaws and by powers beyond their control. All the characters have to fight themselves lest kind motives cost themselves money, and all are as real as our own neighbors. The Jews of Amsterdam provide the immediate millieu, but the stage of action is the Amsterdam Excvhange at the height of power. A great read!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2005

    Another Great One

    David Liss is widely recognized as one of the great new authors on the literary scene, and this book does nothing to tarnish the reputation. Liss's engrossing character development and suspenseful plots leave the reader begging for more. All of Liss's books are treats, and this one may be the best of all.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2005

    Rough start

    This book was really hard for me to get into. It was slow, boring and had absolutely no suspense. If you have a lot of time on your hands, go for it. But if you are checking it out from the library, you might as well just take it back because you probably won't get through it before it's due.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2004

    Couldn't Get Through It!

    Not at all what I expected...put it down half way through - no desire whatsoever to finish this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2004


    It was very hard to picture a Commodities exchange plot in the 17 th century with Converso Jews. The way the story is told is not engageing, it is 100% betrayal, 0% suspense, and with all characters being wicked and deceiving how can you have romance? There is not enough research of that Circa's historical facts. The character descriptions through out the book are repetitive, the part of the story that tells about the coffe trade business is predictable as well as the fate of the characters. I have read other well researched fictional novels based on historical facts about Converso Jews and Catholics living in Europe through those difficult centuries trying to make a living and exposed to wicked events that are far better.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2004

    Where Coffee and Trading emerged

    With the setting in 17th Century Amsterdam, David Liss employs the inevitable emergence of coffee on the commodities exchange to explore the intriguing interplay between those who would seek to find their fortune in trading by whatever means necessary. The plot delves deep into the hidden goals and subterfuge used by the market players to outplay, outwit, and outlast each other toward attaining wealth and status. Such rich character expose proclaims their humanity and tenuous destiny. A fun read of historical fiction and a challenging trip back to the origins of coffee traded on world markets.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2004

    intrigue and betrayl

    This is a very fine read. David Liss has written an historical novel about coffee's beginnings in Europe, the Jewish community in tolerant Amsterdam, and woven a web of mystery and deceit, wherein the reader, and also the central character, is not sure what is true and what is false. What the author does here is much more, however. He presents aspects of human nature which we do not readily face; that the view others have of us does not match that which we have constructed of ourselves, and that we acquire what we can at the expense of others. The characterizations are vivid, and there are surprises at the end of the book. This is the second book I have read by David Liss, and while I thoroughly enjoyed 'A Conspiracy of Paper', I would rate this book even higher. Strongly recommended!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2003

    Read it in two days

    A fascinating look at Jewish life and business during the seventeenth century. I read Conspiracy of Paper (the author's first novel) and could not wait to get my hands on this book. In the age of Starbucks, it was interesting to read about a time where most people had never heard of coffee. Great characters and plot.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2003

    Great book!

    The was a great book from beginning to end!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 41 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)