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.
There is plenty to entertain the reader here...
Washington Post Book World
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
“A VORTEX OF STOCK FRAUD AND MURDER . . . [A] GENRE-STRETCHING FIRST NOVEL.”
“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.”
Read an Excerpt
One 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 renegado 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. Nevertheless, 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 over-used, 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. "Yes, 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 startled 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 could not guess what else Balfour knew of me, but I asked no questions. I only nodded slowly.
From the Audio Cassette edition.