A Conspiracy of Paper (Benjamin Weaver Series #1)

A Conspiracy of Paper (Benjamin Weaver Series #1)

4.3 62
by David Liss

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Benjamin Weaver is an outsider in eighteenth-century London: a Jew among Christians; a ruffian among aristocrats; a retired pugilist who, hired by London's gentry, travels through the criminal underworld in pursuit of debtors and thieves.

In A Conspiracy of Paper, Weaver investigates a crime of the…  See more details below



Benjamin Weaver is an outsider in eighteenth-century London: a Jew among Christians; a ruffian among aristocrats; a retired pugilist who, hired by London's gentry, travels through the criminal underworld in pursuit of debtors and thieves.

In A Conspiracy of Paper, Weaver investigates a crime of the most personal sort: the mysterious death of his estranged father, a notorious stockjobber. To find the answers, Weaver must contend with a desperate prostitute who knows too much about his past, relatives who remind him of his alienation from the Jewish faith, and a cabal of powerful men in the world of British finance who have hidden their business dealings behind an intricate web of deception and violence. Relying on brains and brawn, Weaver uncovers the beginnings of a strange new economic order based on stock speculation--a way of life that poses great risk for investors but real danger for Weaver and his family.

In the tradition of The Alienist and written with scholarly attention to period detail, A Conspiracy of Paper is one of the wittiest and most suspenseful historical novels in recent memory, as well as a perceptive and beguiling depiction of the origin of today's financial markets. In Benjamin Weaver, author David Liss has created an irresistibly appealing protagonist, one who parlays his knowledge of the emerging stock market into a new kind of detective work.

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Editorial Reviews

David Liss's A Conspiracy of Paper was the most ballyhooed literary debut of the year 2000. Set in 18th-century London, the novel tells the story of Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish pugilist turned private investigator, who is drawn into the labyrinthine world of British finance while attempting to solve the murder of his estranged father.
Bruce Cook
There is plenty to entertain the reader here...
Washington Post Book World
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
A Conspiracy of Paper is an evocation of English history that you can happily get lost in for days....In Mr. Liss's rich historical imagination, a London ripening for investment hysteria comes vividly to life.
New York Times
James Polk
Engaging and multifaceted....What makes A Conspiracy of Paper so readable is that Liss manages to create a number of arresting side pots featuring everything from the London underworld to boxing to social mores to English anti-Semitism. And all these sketches are populated with a thoroughly mixed bag of characters, varying from the Dickensian to the Orwellian....That he succeeds in making comprehensible a historical period that seems to have been built on obfuscation is remarkable. That the period was so similar to our own may be a warning as well.
New York Times Book Review
Adam Kirsch
A murder mystery about securities fraud in 18th-Century London might not seem like a formula for popular success. But all the stars have line up to make A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss' first novel, an unusually entertaining and engrossing story. First there is the author, a doctoral student at Columbia University whose specialty is finance in 18th-Century fiction; here he gets the chance to put his scholarship to work. Second, there is his detective-hero, an appealing character called Benjamin Weaver who combines an ex-boxer's strength with the shrewdness of Philip Marlowe, and whose eccentric position in London society--he is a Portuguese Jew at a time when Jews were practically unknown in England--allows him to see the world from a unique perspective. And third, there is our own time, for New York in 2000 is uncannily similar to London in 1719: Both enjoy spectacular wealth from a stock market whose operations, and future, nobody quite understands....Liss has woven a large number of strands into a satisfying pattern...If A Conspiracy of Paper gets the readers it deserves, that sequel should not be long in coming.
^#151; Newsday
Margaria Fichtner
Roiling with bloody intrigue and splayed against the flamboyant vanities, politics and stock-market shenanigans of 18th Century London, this captivating mystery novel ought to leave fans of big, rambunctious fiction limp with happy exhaustion and, perhaps, nagged with cautionary thoughts about the dot-com culture of our own day.....First-time novelist David Liss has produced--cue Masterpiece Theater theme music here--an intricately rendered detective procedural that moves beyond the form's old standbys, greed and murder, to consider the ways in which ambiguous morality erodes social institutions and the culture as a whole....There is a deeply satisfying sense of historical detail and integrity in these pages.
Miami Herald
R. Z. Sheppard
Stern principles are upheld with conspicuous dignity by Benjamin Weaver, the swashbuckling shamus in David Liss's genre-stretching first novel....Liss, a Columbia University graduate student specializing in the relationship between capitalism and the early English novel, has put his researches to imaginative and profitable use.....Appreciators of authenticity should be pleased with Liss's graphic venues....True to the P.I. breed, the Lion of Judah is never intimidated. He handles his liquor and licks his adversaries with equal confidence.
Time Magazine
James Surowiecki
A hypnotic thriller and a thoughtful depiction of 18th-century London, which was being transformed by the emergence of new money, the stock market, and speculative manias; in other words, a culture that looks much like our own.
Talk Magazine
Robin Vidimos
A Conspiracy of Paper is a magical carpet ride of a book, transporting readers into the hurly-burly streets of 18th-century London. David Liss metamorphoses fastidious research into a novel chock full of historical detail that fascinates as it entertains. It's a rich read that never drags....It is a work that any novelist would be proud to acknowledge and, consider that it is a first novel, a particularly impressive display of talent.
Denver Post
Anna Mundow
An impressive, often thrilling hybrid: an adventure novel with scholarly credentials in which financial intrigue is punctuated with frequent swordplay....Liss's depiction of Jewish life in 18th-century London, along with his vivid portrait of the city's criminal gangs and stinking thoroughfares, is neatly woven into a clever plot that rarely pauses for breath....And even those who don't know a guinea from a pound will find the novel's romance irresistible.
New York Daily News
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This remarkably accomplished first novel, by a young man still completing his doctoral dissertation at Columbia, has a great deal going on. It is at once a penetrating study of the beginnings of stock speculation and the retreat from a mineral-based currency in early 18th-century London, a sympathetic look at the life of a Jew in that time and place and a vision of the struggle between the Bank of England and the upstart South Sea Company to become the repository of the nation's fiscal faith. If all that sounds daunting, it is above all a headlong adventure yarn full of dastardly villains, brawls, wenches and as commanding a hero as has graced a novel in some time. He is Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish former boxer who had once abandoned his family, and virtually his faith, too, for a life on the fringes of criminal society as a kind of freelance bailiff who brings debtors to book for their creditors. When his uncherished father dies suddenly, however, and he has reason to suspect the apparent accident was actually murder, he plunges himself into a hunt for those responsible, and in the process changes his life. With his native cunning and his brawling skills, he soon finds himself deeply embroiled with the villainous Jonathan Wild, thief-taker par excellence, who has institutionalized criminal mayhem. He also becomes the pawn of some powerful financial giants lurking in the shadows (much like the corporate villains in contemporary thrillers), comes to suspect his glamorous cousin Miriam of actions unbecoming a lady and employs the wiles of his philosophical Scottish friend Elias to decode the mysterious ways of finance and the laws of probability. The period detail is authentic but never obtrusive; the dialogue is a marvel of courtly locution masking murderous bluntness; and the plot, though devious in the extreme, never becomes opaque. It seems clear that Weaver is being set up as a series hero, which can only be good news for lovers of the best in dashing historical fiction. Agent, Liz Darhansoff. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
London in 1719 is full of prostitutes and bankers, thieves and stock-jobbers who rub shoulders in the convoluted alleys and coffee houses around the Royal Exchange. Then and there, it's not impossible that a merchant suffering reverses kills himself or that a day later a Jewish stock-jobber is run down by a carriage. However, when the merchant's son asks the stock-jobber's son, Benjamin Weaver, to look into both deaths, these fatalities begin to look related and deliberate. As Weaver investigates his father's death, he finds himself deeply embroiled in the bitter political and economic wrangle between the Bank of England and the South Sea Company and the thieves, merchants, stock-jobbers, noblemen, and financiers who all have myriad competing claims. With the exception of some confusing flashbacks that slow the pace, first novelist Liss does a superb job of bringing to life 18th-century London and illuminating the issues of the day--e.g., tension between Christian and Jew--for a modern audience. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/99.]--Cynthia Johnson, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Jeffrey Giles
A tremendously entertaining novel: an intricate mystery, a colorful rogue's gallery and, improbably, a history lesson on the birth of the stock market....a nuanced evocation of the 1700s--the courtly language, the caste systems that divided genders, classes and religions--and it's enormous fun.
From the Publisher
“Tremendously smart, assured, and entertaining . . . An intricate mystery, a colorful rogues’ gallery and, improbably, a history lesson on the birth of the stock market.”

“THE PLOT DRAWS YOU IN FROM PAGE TO PAGE. . . . An evocation of English history that you can happily get lost in for days.”
The New York Times

“REMARKABLE . . . ENGAGING . . . The first stock market crash in the English-speaking world is about to burst, and a whole way of life is about to burst with it.”
The New York Times Book Review


“HIGHLY ENTERTAINING . . . FIENDISHLY INTRICATE . . . Compares favorably with An Instance of the Fingerpost.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A tale of eighteenth-century finance, murder, and religion that is a remarkable debut and a thoroughly satisfying novel.”
Author of Memoirs of a Geisha

“An old-fashioned detective story, with London’s teeming streets and taverns as its backdrop. . . . An artfully constructed potboiler: the sort of thing that would make a good ‘Mystery!’ series on PBS.”
The New Yorker

A Conspiracy of Paper is exciting, intelligent, and witty—a rare combination in historical novels. It is rich in intriguing detail and peopled with fascinating characters. Recommended enthusiastically.”
Author of American Dreams

“A well-researched and highly entertaining historical mystery . . . [A] tale of financial skullduggery and multiple murder . . . Conveyed in vivid extended scenes characterized by crisp dialogue and a keen sense of the ways in which character reveals itself . . . The very model of a modern historical mystery.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Terrific . . . Set in a vividly realized eighteenth-century London . . . Although a financial boom fueled by a new economy or a personal struggle with ethnic identity may seem awfully contemporary, Liss keeps us firmly in another time. . . . The book crackles with period detail, yet the immense research never shows. . . . One can only hope that Liss isn’t finished with Benjamin Weaver.”

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Benjamin Weaver Series , #1
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For some years now, the gentlemen of the book trade have pressed me in the most urgent fashion to commit my memoirs to paper; for, these men have argued, there are many who would gladly pay a few shillings to learn of the true and surprising adventures of my life. While it has been my practice to dismiss this idea with a casual wave of the hand, I cannot claim to have never seriously thought on it, for I have often been the first to congratulate myself on having seen and experienced so much, and many times have I gladly shared my stories with good company around a cleared dinner table. Nevertheless, there is a difference between tales told over a late-night bottle of claret and a book that any man anywhere can pick up and examine. Certainly I have taken pleasure from the idea of recounting my history, but I have also recognized that to publish would be a ticklish endeavor-the names and specifics of my adventures would touch nearly on so many people still living that any such book would be actionable to say the least. Yet the idea has intrigued-even plagued me, no doubt due to the vanity that breeds within all men's breasts, and perhaps within mine more than most. I have therefore decided to write this book as I see fit. If the gentlemen of Grub Street wish to dash out names of obscure connections, then they may do so. For my part, I shall retain the manuscript so that there can be some true record of these events, if not for this age, then for posterity.

I have been at some pains to decide how to begin, for I have seen many things of interest to the general public. Shall I begin like the novelists, with my birth, or like the poets, in the midst of the action? Perhaps neither. I think I shall begin my tale with the day-now more than thirty-five years ago-when I met William Balfour, for it is the matter regarding his father's death that brought me some small measure of success and recognition with the public. Until now, however, few men have known the whole truth behind that affair.

Mr. Balfour first called on me late one morning in October of 1719, a year of much turmoil upon this island-the nation lived in constant fear of the French and their support for the heir to the deposed King James, whose Jacobitical followers threatened continually to retake the British monarchy. Our German King was but four years upon the throne, and the power struggles within his ministry created a feeling of chaos throughout the capital. All the newspapers decried the burden of the nation's debt, which they said could never be paid, but that debt showed no sign of decreasing. This era was one of exuberance as well as turmoil, doom, and possibility. It was a fine time for a man whose livelihood depended upon crime and confusion.

Matters of national politics held little interest for me, however, and the only debt I cared for was my own. And the day I begin my tale I had even more pressing cares than my precarious finances. I had been long awake, but only recently out of bed and dressed, when my landlady, Mrs. Garrison, informed me that there was a Christian gentleman below who wished to see me. My good landlady always felt the need to specify that it was a Christian gentleman come to visit, though in the months I had resided with her, no Jew but myself had ever entered her premises.

That morning I found myself disordered and in no condition to receive visitors, let alone strangers, so I asked Mrs. Garrison to send him away, but in her intrepid manner-for Mrs. Garrison was a stalwart creature she returned, informing me that the gentleman's business was urgent. "He says it relates to a murder," she told me in the same dull tone she used to announce increases in my rent. Her pallid and beveined face hardened to show her displeasure. "That's what he said-murder-plain as anything. I cannot say it pleases me, Mr. Weaver, to have men come to my house talking of murder."

I could not fully comprehend why, if the word was so distasteful to her ears, she should pronounce it quite so loudly within the halls, but I saw my task was to comfort her. "I quite understand, madam. The gentleman surely said 'mercer' and not 'murder,'" I lied, "for I am engaged in a concern of textiles at this moment. Please send him up."

The word murder had caught my attention as well as Mrs. Garrison's. Having been involved in a murder of sorts not twelve hours earlier, I thought this matter might concern me indeed. This Balfour would certainly be a scavenger of some kind-the sort of desperate renegade with which London seethed, a creature who combed the dank and filthy streets near the river, hunting for anything he might pawn, including information. No doubt he had heard something of the unfortunate adventure with which I had met and had come to ask me to pay for his silence. I knew well how to dispose of a man of this stripe. Not with money, certainly, for to give a rascal any silver at all was to encourage him to return for more. No, I had found that in these cases violence usually did my business. I would think of something bloodless-something that would not attract Mrs. Garrison's attention when I escorted the blackguard out. A woman with no taste for the talk of murder under her roof should hardly countenance an act of mutilation paraded down her staircase.

I took a moment to order my receiving room, as I called it. I took two rooms of Mrs. Garrison, one private, the other in which I conducted my business. Like many businessmen-for so I fancied myself, even then-I had been used to order my affairs in a local coffeehouse, but the delicate nature of my work had made such public venues unacceptable to the men I served. Instead, I had set up a room with several comfortable chairs, a table around which to sit, and a handsome set of shelves that I used to store wine and cheese rather than the books for which they were designed. Mrs. Garrison had done the decorating, and while she had given the room an inappropriately cheery tone with its pinkish-white paint and light blue curtains, I found that a few swords and martial prints about the walls helped to add a sufficiently manly corrective.

I took pride in these rooms being so very proper, for the genteel tone put the gentlemen who came to seek my services at ease. My trade frequently involved the unsavory, and gentlemen, I had learned, preferred the illusion that they dealt in simple business-nothing more.

I should like to add, though I risk accusations of vanity, I took pride in my own appearance as well. I had escaped my years as a pugilist with few of the badges that gave fellow-veterans of the ring the appearance of ruffians-missing eyes, mashed noses, or suchlike disfigurements-and had no more to show for my beatings than some small scars about my face and a nose that bore only the mild bumps and jagged edges that come with several breakings. Indeed, I fancied myself a well-enough-looking man, and I made a point of always dressing neatly, if modestly. I wore upon my body only clean shirts, and none of my coats and waistcoats were more than a year old. Yet, though I minded my clothing, I was none of your sprightly popinjays who wore the latest bright colors and frills; a man of my trade always prefers simple fashions that draw to himself no particular attention.

I seated myself at my large oaken writing desk, which faced the door. I used this desk when I ordered my affairs, but I had discovered that it served to make clear my authority. I thus picked up a pen and contorted the muscles in my face to resemble something like a man both busy and irritated.
When Mrs. Garrison showed this visitor in, however, I was at pains to conceal my surprise. William Balfour was no prig-as we called thieves in those days-but a gentleman of fine dress and appearance. He was perhaps five years younger than myself. I gauged him at two- or three-and twenty. He was a tall, gaunt, stooped man with something of a sunken look on a wide, handsome face that was only slightly marred by the scars of smallpox. He wore a wig of the first quality, but it showed its age and wear in its stains and a dingy sallow color poorly hidden by powder. Similarly, his clothes bore the signs of fine tailoring, but they looked a bit overused, covered with the dust of road and panic and cheap lodgings. His waistcoat in particular, once laced with fine silver stuff, was now tattered and threadbare. There was, too, something in his eyes. I could not tell if it was suspicion or fatigue or defeat, and he observed me with a skepticism to which I was all too accustomed. Most men who walk through that door, you understand, had a look prepared for me-scorn, doubt, superiority. A few even had admiration. Men of this last category had seen me in my prime as a pugilist, and their love of sport overcame their embarrassment at seeking the aid of a Jew who meddled in other men's unpleasantries. This Balfour looked at me as neither Jew nor pugilist, but as something else-something of no consequence whatsoever, almost as though I were the servant who should take him to the man he sought.

"Sir," I said, standing up as Mrs. Garrison closed the door behind her. I gave Balfour a short bow, which he returned with a wooden resignation. After offering him a seat before my desk, I returned to my chair and informed him I awaited his commands.

He hesitated before stating his business, taking a moment to study my features-I should say gawk at my features, for he regarded me as more spectacle than man. His eye roamed with clear disapproval at my face and clothing (though both were cleaner and neater than his own), and squinted at my hair; for, unlike a proper gentleman, I wore no peruke, and instead pulled my locks back in the style of a tie-periwig.

"You, I presume, are Benjamin Weaver," he began at last in a voice that cracked with uncertainty. He hardly noticed my nod of acknowledgment. "I come on a serious matter. I am not pleased to be forced to seek your peculiar skills, but I require the assistance that only a man such as yourself can provide." He shifted uneasily in his chair, and I wondered if Mr. Balfour was not what he claimed-if he were perhaps a man of a much lower order than he affected, masquerading as a gentleman. There was, after all, the murder he had spoken of to Mrs. Garrison, but I now could not but wonder if the murder he mentioned was the one that so plagued my own thoughts.

"I hope I am able to be of some assistance to you," I said, with practiced civility. I laid down my pen and cocked my head slightly to show him that I put my full attention at his disposal.

His hands shook distractingly while he studied his fingernails with unconvincing indifference. ìYes, it is an unpleasant business, so I am sure you are quite equal to the task."

I offered him a brief bow from my chair and told him he was too kind or some other like platitude, but he hardly noticed what I said. Despite his attempts to perform a sort of fashionable lassitude, he appeared for all the world like a man on the brink of choking, as though his collar tightened about his throat. He bit his lip. He looked about the room, eyes darting here and there.

"Sir," I said, "you will forgive me if I note that you appear a little discomposed. Can I offer you a glass of port?"

My words all but slapped him in the face, and he collected himself once again to the posture of an insouciant buck. "I must imagine that there are less presumptuous ways for you to inquire into a gentleman's distresses. Nevertheless, I shall take a drink of whatever quality you have upon you."

It was not out of deference that I allowed Balfour to insult me freely. Once I had established myself in my trade, it took no great amount of time to learn that men of birth or standing had a profound need to demonstrate their superiority-not to the man they hired to meddle in their private business, but to the business itself. I could not take Balfour's freedoms personally, for they were not directed at me. I also knew that once I had effectively served such a man, the memory of his discourteous behavior often inspired him to pay promptly and to recommend my skills to his acquaintances. I therefore tossed off Mr. Balfour's insults as a bear tosses off the dogs sent to bait it in Hockley-in-the-Hole. I poured his wine and returned to my desk.

He took a sip. "I am not discomposed," he assured me. If the quality of my drink pleasantly surprised my guest, as I expected it should, he thought this fact not worth mentioning. "I am certainly tired from a poor night's rest, and indeed"-he paused to look at me pointedly-"I am in mourning for my father, who died not two months ago."

I offered my apologies and then surprised myself by telling him that I too had recently lost a father.

Balfour astonished me in return by telling me that he knew of my father's death. "Your father, sir, and my own were acquaintances. They did business together, you know, at times when my father had the need to call on a man of your father's ... sort."

I would like to believe that I showed no surprise, but I doubt it was so. My given name is not Weaver, but Lienzo. Few men were familiar with my true name, so I could not have anticipated that this man would know the identity of my father. I wished to know more about what Balfour knew of me, but my stubbornness intervened, and I asked no questions. I only nodded slowly.

I was now thoroughly confused as to what this man wanted, for it was perfectly plain that he had not come regarding my unfortunate affair of the previous night. As I mulled over my many uncertainties, it occurred to me that I vaguely recalled Balfour's father. I remembered hearing my father speak of him-he had said only good things of the man, for they had been closer, I think, than simple acquaintances, though to call them friends would have been exaggerating the possibilities of their interaction. I remembered Balfour's father, where I might have forgotten the numerous other men with whom my own father did business, for it was unusual for him to have been on such familiar terms with a Christian gentleman. I had not recalled, however, my father's association with this man when I read in the papers of Michael Balfour's self-murder. He had been a wealthy merchant, and, like many men of business who took risks, he had suffered drastic financial reversals. His particular reversals had been severe; he had lost more than everything on a series of bad ventures, and unable to face his creditors with his insolvency, or his family with the shame of his ruin, he had hanged himself in his stables. This act he had committed not twenty-four hours before my father's own death.
"Is it then through your father that you learned of my services?" I asked Balfour. It was an irrelevant question-at least to Mr. Balfour's concerns. I wished to know if my father had spoken of me-indeed if he had spoken approvingly of me-to his colleagues and business associates. Much to my own astonishment, I felt myself hoping that Balfour had knowledge that my father had, in some way, respected the life I had made for myself.

Balfour quickly disabused me of these fictions. "The recommendation comes not so directly. I had certainly heard your name in the past-in the same connotation, you understand, as one hears of ropedancers and raree-shows and that sort of thing-but recently I found myself in a coffeehouse, when I heard a gentleman mention your name. A friend of his, a Sir Owen Nettleton, had engaged you in a matter of business and believed you to be competent-a rating of sufficient merit in this age. I then conceived of the idea that your services might be of some use to me."

I often marveled that London, for so enormous a city, is sometimes astonishingly small. Among countless thousands, these kinds of interactions occur almost daily, for men of like nature and like concerns congregated inevitably at the same clubs and taverns and coffeehouse and tea gardens. I had indeed served Sir Owen Nettleton, and his concerns very much occupied my thoughts that morning, but I shall discuss more of him below.

Balfour finished his port with a mighty gulp and looked straight into my eyes with an intensity that suggested a mustering of forces. "Mr. Weaver, I shall be direct with you. My father, sir, was murdered. I believe by the same person or persons who murdered your father."

I could not even think how to react. My father had been killed certainly, but not murdered, some two months earlier-a drunken coachman had run him down as he crossed Threadneedle Street. The business had been shrouded with a kind of uncertainty. How reckless had the coachman been? Had my father stepped blindly in his way? Could it have been avoided? All answerless questions, the magistrate determined. The coachman, while negligent, had acted without malicious intention, and could have had no reason to want to do harm to my father. The same act perpetrated against an earl or a Parliamentarian might have earned the coachman, at the very least, seven years of transportation to the colonies, but the careless trampling of a Jewish stock-jobber was hardly a matter over which to unfurl the full majesty of the law. The magistrate released the coachman with a stern warning, and that had proved the legal end of the matter.

At that time I had not spoken to my father for close to ten years. I knew nearly nothing of his affairs, and it had hardly occurred to me that his death might have been anything as horrid as murder. This thought had, however, occurred to my father's kinsman, my Uncle Miguel, who had written to inform me of his suspicions. I blush to own I rewarded his efforts to seek my opinion with only a formal reply in which I dismissed his ideas as nonsensical. I did so in part because I did not wish to involve myself with my family and in part because I knew that my uncle, for reasons that eluded me, had loved my father and could not accept the senselessness of so random a death. Yet now, once again, I was confronted with the suggestion that my father had been the victim of a malicious crime, and once again I found that my self-imposed exile from my family made me wish to disbelieve it.

I forced my face to conform to the rigid angles of impartiality. "My father's death was an unfortunate accident." Balfour knew more about my family than I knew about his, and I saw that as a disadvantage, so, already in an agitated state of mind, I proceeded at the slowest of paces. ìAnd if I may be so indelicate, the papers reported your father's death as something other than murder."

Balfour held up his hand, as though the idea of self-murder might be ordered away. I know what the papers reported," he snapped, spittle flying from his mouth, "and I know what the coroner said, yet I promise you something is amiss here. At the time of my father's death, his estate was revealed to be quite broken, yet only weeks before he told me himself that he had been profiting in his speculation, taking advantage of the fluctuation in the markets caused by the rivalries between the Bank of England and the South Sea Company. I had no desire to see him meddling in the affairs of 'Change Alley, buying and selling stocks in the manner of-well, in the manner of your people, Weaver-but he believed there were ample opportunities for a man who kept his wits about him. So how can it be that his finances were so"-he paused briefly to choose his terms-"ill ordered. Do you think it any coincidence that both our fathers, very rich men of acquaintance, should have died suddenly and mysteriously within the span of a single day, and my father's holdings reveal themselves to be in chaos?"

As he spoke, Balfour's face revealed no small number of passions: indignity, disgust, discomfort, even, I believe, shame. I thought it passing strange that a man out to expose so terrible a crime displayed no attitudes of outrage.

The claims he made, however, sparked within me an agitation, which I sought to contain by setting my mind to the facts before me. "What you present does not offer any kind of evidence of murder," I said after a moment. "I cannot see how you have reached this conclusion."

"My father's death was made to look like self-murder so that a villain or villains could take his money with impunity," he pronounced, as though he unveiled a discovery of natural philosophy.

"You believe his estate to have been robbed, and your father to have been murdered to hide this robbery?"

"In a word, sir, yes. That is what I believe." Balfour's features settled, for a brief moment, into a look of languid contentment. Then he eyed his empty wineglass with nervous longing. I obliged him by refilling.

I paced about the room, despite the distracting ache of an old wound in my leg-a wound that had ended my days as a pugilist. "What is the connection between these deaths, then, sir? My father's estate is solvent."

"But is anything missing? Do you even know, sir?"

I did not, so I ignored what I considered a presumptuous question. "It is in your best interest that I be blunt. Your father has died recently, under terrible conditions, and unable to leave a legacy. You have grown up with the expectation of wealth and privilege, with every reason to believe you would live a gentleman's life of ease. Now you find your dreams dashed, and you look for ways to believe it is not so."

Balfour reddened dramatically. I suspect he was unused to challenges, particularly challenges from men such as myself. "I resent your words, Weaver. My family may be under disabilities at this moment, but you would do well to remember that I am a gentleman born."
"As I am," I said, looking directly into his reddish eyes. It was a harsh blow. His family was an upstart, and he knew it. He had earned that most ambiguous title of gentleman through his father's aggressive dealings as a tobacco merchant, not through the majesty of his bloodlines. Indeed, I recalled that old Balfour had made a bit of a stir among the more established tobacco merchants by angering the men he hired to unload his vessels. Dock laborers have, by custom, always been given scant wages, and they have evened out their earnings through a kind of quiet redistribution of the goods they handled. For vessels carrying tobacco, the process is known as "socking"; the laborers merely plunge their hands into the bales of tobacco, sock away as much as they can hold and then resell it on their own. True enough it was a kind of sanctioned theft, but years ago tobacco merchants had realized that their porters were helping themselves to the cargo, so they simply cut the wages and looked the other way.

Old Balfour, however, had taken the unhappy step of hiring men to inspect the workers and make sure no one socked his goods, but he refused to raise wages proportionately. The laborers had grown violent, smashing open several bales of sot weed and boldly liberating its contents. Old Balfour only relented once his brother merchants convinced him that to pursue this mad course was to risk riot and destruction of all their trades.

That this merchant's son should assert that his was an old family was patently absurd-it was not even an old trading family. And while in those days there was, as there is now, something decidedly English about a wealthy merchant, it was a relatively new and uncertain assertion that the son of such a man could claim the status of gentleman. My declaration that our families were of a piece sent him into a kind of fit. He blinked as though trying to dispel a vision, and twitched irritably until he regained himself.

"I think it no coincidence that my father's killers made his death appear self-murder, for it makes all ashamed to discuss it. But I am not ashamed. You think me now penniless, and you think I come to you begging for your help like a pauper, but you know nothing of me. I shall pay you twenty pounds to look into this matter for one week." He paused so I might have time to reflect on so large a sum. "That I should have to pay you anything to uncover the truth behind your own father's murder is the more shame for you, but I cannot answer for your sentiments."

I studied his face, looking for signs of I'm not sure what-deceit, self-doubt, fear? I saw only an anxious determination. I no longer questioned that he was who he claimed to be. He was an unpleasant man; I knew that I disliked him immensely, and I was certain that he felt no love for me, yet I could not deny my interest in what he claimed about my father's death. "Mr. Balfour, did anyone see what you claim to be this falsification of self-murder?"

He waved his hands in the air to demonstrate the foolishness of my question. "I do not know that anyone did."

I pressed on. "Have you heard talk, sir?"

He stared at me in astonishment, as though I had spoken gibberish. "From whom would I? Do you think me the sort to correspond with men who would talk of such things?"

I sighed. "Then I am confused. How can I find the man who committed a crime if you have no witnesses and no contacts? Into what, precisely, am I to look?"

"I do not know your business, Weaver. It seems to me that you are being damnably obtuse. You have brought men to justice before-how you have done it then, you are to do it now."

I attempted a polite, and I admit, condescending smile. "When I have brought men to justice in the past, sir, it has been in instances wherein someone knew the villain's identity, and the task lay before me to locate him. Or perhaps there has been a crime in which the scoundrel is unknown, but witnesses saw that he had some very distinctive features-let us say a scar above his right eye and a missing thumb. With information of this nature, I can ask questions of the sort of people who might know this man and thus learn his name, his habits, and finally his whereabouts. But if the first step is your belief, what is the second step? Who are the right people to inquire of next?"

"I am shocked to hear of your methods, Weaver." He paused for a moment, perhaps to drive home his distaste. "I cannot tell you of second steps nor of which rascals are appropriate for you to speak with regarding my father's murder. Your business is your own, but I should think you would consider the matter of sufficient interest to take of me twenty pounds."

I was silent for some time. I wanted nothing so much as to send the man away, for I had always been willing to go considerable lengths to avoid contact with my family. Yet twenty pounds was no small amount to me, and while I dreaded the terrible day of reckoning, I knew I needed some external force to push me toward reestablishing contact with those who I had long neglected. And there was more: though I could not then have explained why, the idea of looking into a matter so opaque intrigued me, for it occurred to me that Balfour, despite the bluster with which he presented his notions, was right. Had there been a crime committed, it seemed only reasonable that it could be uncovered, and I liked the thought of what a success in an inquiry of this nature could do for my reputation.

îI expect soon another visitor," I said at last. ìAnd I am very busy." He started to speak, but I would not let him. I shall look into this matter, Mr. Balfour. How could I not? But I have not the time to look into this matter right away. If your father has been killed, then there must be some reason why. If it is theft, we must know more details of the theft. I wish you to go inquire as nearly as you can into his matters. Speak to his friends, relatives, employees, and whomever else you think might perhaps harbor some of the same suspicions. Let me know where I can find you, and in a few days time I shall call on you."

"For what shall I pay you, Weaver, if I am to do your work for you?"

My smile this time was less benign. "You are, of course, right. When I am at liberty, I shall speak to your father's family, friends, and employees. That they do not dismiss me, I shall be certain to tell them that you have sent me to ask questions of them. You might wish to inform them in advance to expect a Jew by the name of Weaver to inquire closely into family matters."

îI cannot have you bothering these people," he stammered. "Gad, to have you asking questions of my mother. . ."

"Then perhaps, as I suggested, you would like to look into this yourself. "

Balfour stood up, performing gentlemanly composure. I see you are a clever maneuverer. I shall make some discreet inquiries. But I expect to hear from you shortly."

I neither spoke nor moved, but Balfour took no notice, and within an instant he was gone from my rooms. For some time I remained motionless. I thought on what had transpired and what it might mean, and then I reached for the bottle of port.

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What People are saying about this

John Jakes
A Conspiracy of Paper is exciting, intelligent, and witty--a rare combination in historical novels. It is rich in intriguing detail and peopled with fascinating characters. Recommended enthusiastically.
— (John Jakes, author of American Dreams)
Arthur Golden
In A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss has woven a tale of 18th-century finance, murder, and religion that is a remarkable debut and a thoroughly satisfying novel.
— (Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha)

Meet the Author

David Liss was born in 1966 and grew up in south Florida. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the department of English at Columbia University, where he is completing his dissertation on how the mid-eighteenth-century novel reflects and shapes the emergence of the modern idea of personal finance. He has given numerous conference papers on his research and has also published on Henry James. He has received several awards for his work, including the Columbia President's Fellowship, an A. W. Mellon Research Fellowship, and the Whiting Dissertation Fellowship. He holds an M.A. degree from Georgia State University and a B.S. degree from Syracuse University. Liss lives in New York City with his wife and can be reached via his website, www.davidliss.com.

Brief Biography

San Antonio, Texas
Date of Birth:
March 16, 1966
Place of Birth:
Englewood, New Jersey
B.S., M.A., M.Phil.

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A Conspiracy of Paper (Benjamin Weaver Series #1) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 62 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
David Liss has set his story in the year before the South Sea Bubble caused stocks to fall 98%. Unlike precipitous market declines in later years, the trouble then was was widespread corruption, short selling, dishonesty and, in the novel, murder. David Liss has invented wonderful characters whose flaws, unlike the flaws of characters in contemporary fiction, are flaws of strength and arrogant self confidence: no wimps in this story. To understand the investment climate of our own times we need to know more about the dawn of the investment era, and it is all in this book. There is no preaching nor academic asides in this fast-told adventure, only muscular action. I immediately read more books about the period, but enjoyed this one the most.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book by David Liss was an excellent read, the main character Benjamin weaver is a thief taker in 18th century england who is hired to investigate the mysterious circumstances of his fathers and another mans murder. Liss then takes you down into a world where the good are bad and the bad are good depending on the situation.
woutersnoirs More than 1 year ago
Benjamin Weaver is self-professed "protector, guardian, bailiff, constable-for-hire, and thief-taker." He’s tough and masculine and sexy to the reader. The other characters in the book are well developed and humorous. Learning about 17th-century finance is also very fascinating. 
NC-Lady_49 More than 1 year ago
A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss is an excellent read for anyone who enjoys history and mystery. The character, Benjamin Weaver, is a wonderfully flawed man whose life experiences have given him his own brand of morality. The plot line is complicated with several twists. But what especially held my interest is the parallel drawn between the South Sea Company of early 18th century England and today's Wall Street. The contrast is eerie. I guess it is true that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
coool7doc More than 1 year ago
excellent book. Complex plot ,well worked out. Book moves along very fast, very well written.An enjoyable read,the first in a series with Benjamin Weaver ex pugilist as the hero.
Anonymous 4 months ago
Kiss your hand three ties post this to three other books and look under your pillow
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Lend me it please
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