A Spectacle of Corruption (Benjamin Weaver Series #2)

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Overview

"Moments after his conviction for a murder he did not commit, at a trial presided over by a judge determined to find him guilty, Benjamin Weaver is accosted by a stranger who cunningly slips a lockpick and a file into his hands. In an instant he understands two things: Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to see him condemned to hang - and another equally mysterious agent is determined to see him free." "After a daring escape from eighteenth-century London's most notorious prison, Weaver must face another challenge: how to prove himself
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A Spectacle of Corruption (Benjamin Weaver Series #2)

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Overview

"Moments after his conviction for a murder he did not commit, at a trial presided over by a judge determined to find him guilty, Benjamin Weaver is accosted by a stranger who cunningly slips a lockpick and a file into his hands. In an instant he understands two things: Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to see him condemned to hang - and another equally mysterious agent is determined to see him free." "After a daring escape from eighteenth-century London's most notorious prison, Weaver must face another challenge: how to prove himself innocent of a crime when the corrupt courts have already shown they want only to see him hang. To discover the truth and clear his name, he will have to understand the motivations behind a secret scheme to extort a priest, uncover double-dealings in the unrest among London's dockworkers, and expose the conspiracy that links the plot against him to the looming national election - an election with the potential to spark a revolution and topple the monarchy." Unable to show his face in public, Weaver pursues his inquiry in the guise of a wealthy merchant who seeks to involve himself in the political scene. But he soon finds that the world of polite society and politics is filled with schemers and plotters, men who pursue riches and power - and those who seek to return the son of the deposed king to the throne. Desperately navigating a labyrinth of politicians, crime lords, assassins, and spies, Weaver learns that, in an election year, little is what it seems and the truth comes at a staggeringly high cost.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] wonderful book . . . every bit as good as [Liss’s] remarkable debut . . . Easily one of the year’s best.”
–The Boston Globe

“[A] rousing sequel of historical, intellectual suspense."
San Antonio Express-News

“Liss is a superb writer who evokes the squalor of London with Hogarthian gusto.”
People

“In Benjamin Weaver, Mr. Liss has created a multifaceted character and a wonderful narrator.”
The New York Sun

“With eloquent wit, Liss manipulates the concepts of misdirection and probability theory in his serpentine third novel. . . . It all ends with yet another twist that seems to promise we’ll hear more from–and more of–the indefatigable Benjamin Weaver. Let’s hope so.”
–Kirkus Reviews

“Gritty historical fiction . . . glorious dialogue, lively rogues [and a] fascinating setting.”
Publishers Weekly

The New York Times
A common problem with historical fiction is that an author will spend so much time polishing a character that he or she never takes him or her out for a drive. Liss sends Weaver into danger at the drop of a top hat, and he handles these action scenes well. One of the book's best set pieces is a nighttime escape from Newgate prison, involving a truly harrowing moment of claustrophobia. — Michael Agger
The Washington Post
Benjamin Weaver, the hero of A Spectacle of Corruption, soon turns out to be the hard-outside, soft-inside private investigator of the noir thrillers inserted into 1720s London: Philip Marlowe done up in a wig and buckles. — James Buchan
Publishers Weekly
This sequel to Liss's Edgar Award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) brings back ex-pugilist Benjamin Weaver and his 18th-century London environs in all their squalid glory. Benjamin has become a "thieftaker," a sort of bounty hunter/private eye, and is investigating the simple case of a threatening letter when he is caught up in a riot, accused of murder and sentenced to hang. After a gutsy escape, he sets about unraveling the mystery of who framed him and why. Donning the disguise of a wealthy coffee planter from Jamaica, Benjamin infiltrates the upper classes, where he encounters a plot centering on a hotly contested House of Commons election. There is much explanation (perhaps too much) of the history and philosophies of the Whig, Tory and Jacobite parties, but this is nicely balanced with Benjamin's forays into London's underbelly, where he has his way with the ladies and dodges dangerous louts looking to kill him. The real fun is the re-creation of the streets of London ("He fell into the alley's filth-the kennel of emptied chamber pots, bits of dead dogs gnawed on by hungry rats, apple cores and oyster shells") and the colorful denizens thereof. Many hours are spent in innumerable coffeehouses, with Benjamin and company imbibing coffee, chocolate, ale, wine and that great destroyer of the poor, rotgut gin, and employing such useful swear words as "shitten stick," "arse pot" and "bum firking." Mystery and mainstream readers with a taste for gritty historical fiction will relish Liss's glorious dialogue, lively rogues, fascinating setting and indomitable hero. (Mar.) Forecast: The many readers who loved Liss's first book have been eagerly awaiting a sequel. Booksellers can recommend both of the Benjamin Weaver books to those who enjoy Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding mystery series. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The second adventure of Benjamin Weaver, 18th-century London "thief-catcher," is almost as good as the first, the Edgar Award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper. Corruption opens with Benjamin on trial for a murder he did not commit. Even after revealing that the chief witnesses against him were paid off, he is convicted. Following a daring prison break, Benjamin sets out to clear his name, assuming the guise of a Jamaican tobacco trader, and gets caught up in the campaign for the Westminster Parliamentary seat. His task is complicated by his affair with the sister of the ruthless election agent for the Whig candidate and because the opposing Tory is the husband of Benjamin's former love. Liss's tale is too talky at times and the villain a bit obvious, but it provides a rousing look at the London of 1722. Michael Page offers a less overly emphatic reading than usual; recommended for all collections.-Michael Adams, CUNY Graduate Ctr. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
With eloquent wit, Liss manipulates the concepts of misdirection and probability theory in his serpentine third novel (after The Coffee Trader, 2003). Once again, we meet the unconventional protagonist of the author's Edgar-winning debut A Conspiracy of Paper (2000). "Thief-taker," retired prizefighter, and Jew Benjamin Weaver, as resourceful a former rogue as ever, is in peril again-falsely convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder of a dockworker and labor leader whom he barely knew. The year is 1722, and London is abuzz over England's first General Election, vigorously contested by conservative Tories who support Hanoverian King George I and antiroyalist Whigs, who may or may not be in league with Jacobites plotting the restoration of deposed "Pretender" James II of Scotland. Weaver escapes from Newgate Prison (in a marvelously detailed sequence), and, while laboring to clear his name, assumes multiple disguises and forms affiliations with several members of London's political, ecclesiastical, and criminal elites. These include the woman he loves unrequitedly, his cousin's widow Miriam, and her husband, Whig Parliamentary candidate Griffin Melbury; duplicitous parish priest Christopher Ufford (in whose service suspicion for murder had fallen on Weaver); brutal tobacco merchant Dennis Dogsmill and his fetching sister Grace, and numerous other power brokers and ruffians whose allegiances and very identities are seldom what they seem. The dazzling plot, which grows steadily more intricate and circuitous, turns on the allegation that "there [is] a Tory spy among the Whigs," and the likelihood that Weaver's victimization is connected to the election that the charismatic Melburyblithely characterizes as "a spectacle of corruption." Liss's impressive research provides a wealth of information about 18th-century politics, emergent labor organizations, and gradations of etiquette and malfeasance among contrasting social levels. And Weaver's somber, wry, knowing narrator's voice is a deadpan delight. Furthermore, it all ends with yet another twist that seems to promise we'll hear more from-and of-the indefatigable Benjamin Weaver. Let's hope so. Agency: Darhansoff, Verrill and Feldman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375760891
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/23/2004
  • Series: Benjamin Weaver Series , #2
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 245,418
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

David  Liss
DAVID LISS is the author of The Coffee Trader and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and daughter, and can be reached via his website,www.davidliss.com.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

David Liss never received his doctorate. According to the tongue-in-cheek F.A.Q.s on the author's web site, this is the second most common question that Liss is asked in interviews. The first, of course, is "are you Jewish?"

Halfway through his dissertation on 18th century British literature and culture, Liss decided to take a shot at writing fiction. His extensive knowledge of early British culture and his Jewish heritage informed the world he would create -- an anarchic, corrupt economic playground in which Jews and Christians forge tenuous bonds in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

For the next few semesters, Liss wrote his dissertation during the school year and his novel during breaks. As time went on, the breaks became longer and longer. Liss found himself ignoring his dissertation and concentrating full time on his fiction, living off of a fellowship grant he had received to finish his studies. The gamble paid off; published in 2000, A Conspiracy of Paper was released to glowing reviews and brisk sales.

A Conspiracy of Paper introduced readers to Benjamin Weaver, the "thief-taker" who is also the protagonist of Liss's third novel, Spectacle of Corruption. 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." Critics and mystery readers immediately took to this "Philip Marlowe done up in a wig and buckles," and A Conspiracy of Paper won Liss the Edgar award for Best First Novel.

The Edgar came as somewhat of a mixed blessing for the young novelist. Liss did not necessarily set out to write a "mystery novel," nor did he feel any particular leanings toward continuing to write in the mystery genre. By winning the Edgar, Liss feared that he would be pigeonholed as "the historical mystery guy." So for his second novel, Liss decided to take a step away from Weaver, further back into the 17th century.

The Coffee Trader tells the tale of Miguel Lienzo, a Jewish trader in Amsterdam who tries to corner the market on a promising new commodity known as coffee. Echoes of our current economic climate surface throughout, and the storyline carries a special poignancy in today's culture of multinational coffee chains.

A Conspiracy of Paper fans finally received their second helping of Benjamin Weaver in 2004, with the release of Spectacle of Corruption. This time around, Weaver escapes from prison and steps incognito into the world of 18th century politics. The setting gives Liss a fresh opportunity to flex his intellectual muscles, creating a fascinating and enlightening portrait of London's political scene.

Liss is currently putting the finishing touches on his fourth novel, which he promises will have nothing to do with the eighteenth century, stock trading, or men in wigs. As for that dissertation, Weaver is still listed in his official bio as a doctoral candidate. With three successful novels and a fourth in the works, however, Liss is not rushing to finish his degree. When asked whether he feels a need to complete the degree, he says, "Not at all. I'd quit again if I could."

Good To Know

A few outtakes from our interview with Liss:

"I once spent a spent a summer selling encyclopedias door to door."

"I am dedicated to the cause of animal rights."

"On my first day of college, I vomited on the dining hall steps in front of a timid young lady and her horrified parents."

"I don't have any especially interesting unusual hobbies. When not working or parenting, I tend to be reading, exercising (I'm told that fitness has replaced alcoholism for contemporary writers), and general socializing. I have a long-standing interest in, and appreciation of, wine."

"Also, I'm thinking of starting my own cult -- a small group of people who will give me all of their material possessions and worship me as the most powerful being in the universe. If you're interested in joining, shoot me an email."

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    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

Since the publication of the first volume of my memoirs, I have found myself the subject of more notoriety than I had ever known or might have anticipated. I cannot register a complaint or a lament, for any man who chooses to place himself in public sight has no reason to regret such attentions. Rather, he must be grateful if the public chooses to cast its fickle gaze in his direction, a truth to which the countless volumes languishing in the scribbler’s perdition of obscurity can testify.

I will be frank and say that I have been gratified by the warmth with which readers responded to the accounts of my early years, yet I have been surprised too—surprised by people who read a few lines of my thoughts and consider themselves near friends, free to speak their minds to me. And while I shall not find fault with someone who has read my words so closely that he wishes to makes observations on them, I confess I have been confounded by the number of people who believe they may comment with impunity on any aspect of my life without a moment’s regard to custom or propriety.

Some months after publishing my little volume I sat at a supper gathering, speaking of a particularly noxious criminal I intended to bring to justice. A young spark, on whom I had never before set eyes, turned to me and said that this fellow had better be careful, lest he meet the same end as Walter Yate. Here he simpered, as though he and I shared a secret.

My amazement was such that I did not say a word. I had not thought about Walter Yate in some time, and I had no idea that his name had retained any currency after so many years. But I was to discover that, while I had not contemplated this poor fellow, others had. Not a fortnight later another man, also a stranger, commented on a difficulty I faced by saying I should manage that affair in the same fashion that I had managed my business with Walter Yate. He said the name with a sly nod and a wink, as though, because he had uttered this shibboleth, he and I were now jolly co-conspirators.

It does not offend me that these men chose to reference incidents from my past. It does, however, perplex me that they should feel at liberty to speak of something they do not understand. I cannot fully express my bewilderment that such people, believing what they do about this incident, should mention it to me at all, let alone with more than a dash of good cheer. Does one go to a raree show and make light with the tigers regarding their fangs?

I have therefore decided that I must pen another volume of memoirs, if for no other reason than to disabuse the world of its ideas concerning this chapter of my history. I wish no more to hear the name Walter Yate spoken in naughty and secretive tones. This man, to the best of my knowledge, did nothing to deserve becoming the subject of a private titter. Therefore, I shall say now, truthfully and definitively, that I did not act violently upon Mr. Yate—let alone with the most definitive violence—something which, I have discovered, the world generally believes. Further, if I may disabuse the public of another misconception, I did not escape the most terrible of punishments for his murder by calling upon the influence of friends in the government. Neither of those tales is true. I had never known of these rumors because no one had ever spoken them to me before. But now, having published a few words of my life, I am every man’s friend. Let me then do the friendly service of revealing the facts about the incident, if for no other reason than that it might be spoken of no more.

Walter Yate died, beaten in the head with an iron bar, only six days before the meeting of the King’s Bench, so I had mercifully little time after my arrest to reflect on my condition while awaiting trial. I will be honest: I might have put that time to better use, but not once did I believe, truly believe, that I would be convicted for a crime I had not committed—the murder of a man of whom I had scarcely heard before his death. I ought to have believed it, but I did not.

So great was my confidence that I often found myself hardly even listening to the words spoken at my own trial. Instead, I looked out at the mob packed into the open-air courtroom. It rained a fine mist that day, and there was a considerable chill in the February air, but the crowds came anyway, crammed onto the rough and splintering benches, hunched against the wet, to watch the proceedings, which had attracted some attention in the newspapers. The spectators sat eating their oranges and apples and lit- tle mutton pastries, smoking their pipes and taking snuff. They pissed in pots in the corners and threw their oyster shells at the feet of the jury. They murmured and cheered and shook their heads as though it were all an enormous puppet show staged for their amusement.

I suppose I might have been pleased to be the subject of such a broad public curiosity, but I found no gratification in notoriety. Not when she was not there, the woman I most wanted to look upon in my time of sorrows. If I were to be convicted, I thought (only in the most romantical way, since I no more anticipated a conviction than that I should be elected Lord Mayor), I should only want her to come and cry at my feet, tell me of her regrets. I wanted her teary kisses on my face. I wanted her hands, raw and coarse with wringing, to take mine as she begged my forgiveness and pleaded to hear my vows of love repeated a hundred times. These were, I knew, mere fantasies of an overwrought imagination. She would not come to my trial, and she would not come to visit me before my fanciful execution. She could not.

My cousin’s widow, Miriam, whom I had sought to marry, had wedded herself six months before to a man named Griffin Melbury, who at the moment of my trial busied himself with preparations for standing as the Tory candidate in the election soon to commence in Westminster. Now a convert to the Church of England and the wife of a man who hoped to rise as a prominent opposition politician, Miriam Melbury could ill afford to attend the trial of a Jewish ruffian-for-hire, one to whom she was no longer attached by the bonds of kinship. Kneeling at my feet or covering my face with tear-wet kisses was hardly the sort of behavior to which she was inclined under any circumstances. It would surely not happen now that she had given herself to another man.

Thus, in my hour of crisis, I dwelled less on the possibility of impending doom than I did on Miriam. I blamed her, as though she could be held accountable for this absurd trial—after all, had she married me, I might have abandoned thieftaking and would not have brought myself into the circumstances that had led to this disaster. I blamed myself for not pursuing her more vigorously—though three marriage proposals ought to meet any man’s definition of vigor.

So, while the lawyer for the Crown attempted to convince the jury to convict me, I thought of Miriam. And, because even as I dwell with longing and melancholy I remain a man, I also thought about the woman with yellow hair.

It must be seen as no surprise that my mind wandered to other women. In the half year since Miriam had married, I had distracted myself—not with the intent of forgetting, you must understand, but with the aim of making my sense of loss more exquisite—largely by indulging in vices, and those vices consisted principally of women and drink. I regretted that I was not of a gambling disposition, for most men I knew found that vice to be as distracting as the two I favored, if not more so. But in the past, having paid the high price of money lost at game, I could not quite grasp the entertainment in viewing a pair of greedy hands collecting a pile of silver that had once been my own.

Drink and women: Those were vices on which I could depend. Neither needed to be of particularly fine quality; I was of no temper to be overly choosy. Yet, here was a woman, sitting at the edge of one of the benches, who absorbed my attention as nearly as anything could in those dark times. She had pale yellow hair and eyes the color of the sun itself. She was not beautiful, but she was pretty and had a kind of pert demeanor, with her pointy nose and sharp chin. Though no great lady, she dressed like a woman of the middling ranks, neatly, but without flair or much of a nod to fashion. Rather, she let nature do what her tailor could not, and exposed to the world in a deeply cut bodice the expanse of a dazzling bosom. There was, in short, nothing that would have kept me from finding her a delight in an alehouse or tavern, but no particular reason why she should command my attention while I sat on trial for my life.

Except that she did not once take her eyes from me. Not for a moment.

Others looked at me, of course—my uncle and aunt with pity and perhaps with admonition, my friends with fear, my enemies with glee, strangers with unpitying curiosity—but this woman fixed on me a desperate, hungry gaze. When our eyes locked, she neither smiled nor frowned but only met my look as though we had shared a lifetime together and no word need be spoken between us. Anyone observing would have thought us married or sweethearts, but I had never to my recollection—none the best during those six months of hearty drinking—seen her before. The enigma of her gaze monopolized my thoughts far more than the enigma of how I came to stand trial for the death of a dockworker I’d never heard of two days before my arrest.

The rain had begun to fall harder and turn frozen when the prosecuting lawyer, an old fellow named Lionel Antsy, called Jonathan Wild to the stand. In that year, 1722, this notorious criminal was still widely believed to be the only true bulwark against the marauding armies of thieves and brigands that plagued the metropolis. He and I had long been rivals in our thieftaking efforts, for our methods were none too similar. I believed that if I helped honest folk to recover their lost goods, I should receive a handsome reward for my labors. Granted, my work was not always quite so principled. I was willing to track down elusive debtors, to use the skills I’d gained in the pugilist’s ring to teach lessons to rascals (provided they deserved such treatment in my eyes), to intimidate and frighten and scare men who required such usage. I would not, however, inflict harm on those I believed undeserving of rough treatment, and I’d even been known to let a debtor or two escape my capture—always with an apologetic lie to my employer—if I heard a credible tale of a starving wife or sick children.

Wild, however, was a ruthless rogue. He would send forth his thieves to steal goods and then sell the same items back to their owners, all the while pretending to be the lone voice of London’s victims. These methods, I admit, were far more profitable than mine. Hardly a cutpurse in London lined his pockets without Wild taking his share. No murderer could hide his bloodstained hands from Wild’s scrutiny, even if the great thieftaker had ordered the murder himself. He owned smuggling ships that visited every port in the kingdom and had agents in every nation in Europe. The stockjobbers of ’Change Alley hardly dared to buy and sell without his nod. He was, in short, a remarkably dangerous man, and he bore me no love.

In our incompatible efforts, we had clashed more than once, though our clashes tended toward the cool rather than the hot. We circled around each other, like dogs more eager to bark than fight. Nevertheless, I could not doubt that Wild would relish this opportunity to see me destroyed. As he had made a career out of perjuring himself before any jury that would listen, I now only waited to discover the severity of his condemnation and the verve with which he delivered it.

Mr. Antsy hobbled toward the witness, hunched over to keep the frozen rain from his face. He looked to be anywhere between fifty and one hundred years of age—gaunt as death itself, with his skin hanging loose about his face like an empty wine bladder, and his head bobbing above the mass of his greatcoat. His peruke, limp from the rain, hung askew and was of such a horrible condition I could only suppose he had purchased it at the dip in Holborn, where a man might pay threepence for the chance to blindly pull a used wig from a box. Not having bothered to shave that morning, and perhaps the morning before, his face was fertile with strands of weedy white hair that poked from out the rugged earth of his face.

“Now, Mr. Wild,” he said, in his shrill and quivering voice, “you have been called here to testify to the character of Mr. Weaver because you are widely regarded as something of an expert in criminal matters—a student of the philosophy of crime, if you will.”

“I like to think so of myself,” he said, his country accent so thick that the jury leaned in closer, as though proximity might help them to understand better. Wild, on whom the rain hardly dared to fall, held himself erect and smiled almost pityingly at Mr. Antsy. How could an old pettifogger like Antsy inspire anything but contempt in a man who routinely sent his own thieves to hang that he might retrieve the forty-pound bounty offered by the state?

“You are widely regarded, sir, as the metropolis’s most effective agent in the sphere of thieftaking, is that not right?”

“It is,” Wild said, with an easy pride. He was advancing into his middle years then, but he appeared nonetheless handsome and vibrant in his trim suit and wig. He had a deceptively kind face, too, with large eyes, rounded cheeks, and a warm and avuncular smile that made people like him and trust him at once. “I am known as the Thieftaker General, and it is a title I bear with both pride and honor.”

“And in this capacity, you have come to know the many aspects of the criminal world, yes?”

“Precisely, Mr. Antsy. Most people understand that if they should lose an article of some importance, or wish to track down the perpetrator of a crime, no matter how heinous, I am the man to seek.”

There was never a poor opportunity to enhance one’s reputation, I thought. Wild intended to see me hang and get a few puffs in the newspapers at the same time.

“Then you think yourself privy to the criminal doings in our metropolis?” Antsy asked.

“I have applied myself to this trade for many years now,” Wild answered. “There are few matters of criminality that escape my notice.”

He neglected to mention that he noticed these matters of criminality because, in general, he or his agents orchestrated them.

“Tell us, if you will,” Antsy said, “of Mr. Weaver’s connection to the death of Walter Yate.”

Wild paused for a moment. I glared at him. I did my utmost to say with silent words that he must know I would never be convicted, and if he crossed me in this I would not let the matter go. Proceed, I told him with my eyes, and you will be proceeding toward your own doom. Wild met my stare for a moment and nodded ever so slightly, conveying a significance I could not fathom. He then turned to Antsy.

“I can tell you almost nothing of that,” he said.

Antsy opened his mouth, but it seemed to take him a moment to realize the answer he received was not the one he had been anticipating. He pressed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, as though trying to squeeze Wild’s answer from his flesh the way a cider maker wrings juice from an apple. “What do you mean, sir?” he asked, in a quivering voice more shrill than its usual.

Wild smiled slightly. “Only that I have no knowledge of the matters surrounding Yate’s death or of Weaver’s supposed involvement—only what I have read in the newspapers. It is my goal to discover the truth behind all horrific crimes, but I cannot learn everything. Though I do try, I promise you.”

Every spectator at the King’s Bench could see from the slackening of Antsy’s face that the lawyer had expected something quite different from Wild. A lecture on the danger I posed to London, perhaps. A recounting of my former crimes. A list of atrocities in which he had long suspected my involvement. But Wild had a different game in mind—one that baffled me entirely.

Antsy looked up and grimaced. He took a deep breath that puffed out his chest nearly to the size of a normal man’s and gritted his teeth into a deathly smile. “Do you not think Weaver a vicious man, quite capable of killing anyone, even a total stranger, without cause? And, accordingly, quite capable of killing Walter Yate? Is it not correct to say that you know with certainty that he did kill Walter Yate?”

“On the contrary,” Wild answered blithely, like an anatomy instructor asked to discuss the mysteries of respiration. “I be- lieve Weaver to be a man of honor. He and I are not friends; in truth, we often find ourselves opposed. If I may be so bold, I think Weaver to be a rather miserable sort of thieftaker, who does the state and those who pay him a disservice. But being miserable in his trade does not make him necessarily a wicked man any more than a cobbler should be called wicked for making pinching shoes. I have no more reason to think Weaver guilty of this crime than I do any other man. To my knowing, you might be as guilty as he.”

Antsy spun toward the judge, Piers Rowley, who stared at Wild with an astonishment equal to the lawyer’s. “M’lord,” Antsy complained, “this is not the testimony I had expected. Mr. Wild was to have spoken of Weaver’s crimes and cruelties.”

The judge turned to the witness. Like Antsy, he was well into his later years, but with his large face and ruddy complexion he wore his age far more comfortably than the lawyer. Antsy appeared starved for all nourishment, but the judge looked to receive more than his share. His enormous jowls were big with beer and roast beef and puffed like a fat infant’s.

“Mr. Wild,” Rowley said to the witness, “you will provide Mr. Antsy with the testimony he wishes.”

I had not quite expected this reply. I did not know him well by any means, but I had observed Rowley in the past—when called to testify against men I had helped bring to justice—and I had always found in him as much fairness and honesty as one could hope for in a man of his profession. He took bribes sparingly, and then only to secure a ruling he had intended to make without financial incentive. I had ever noted that he took his role as protector of the defendant seriously, and I had felt a measure of relief when I learned he was to preside over my trial. Now it appeared that my optimism had been misplaced.

“Begging your pardon, m’lord,” Wild answered, “but I cannot answer for his expectations. Having sworn an oath to speak the truth, I must do so.”

Here was something comical. Wild had no more loyalty to oaths than a Frenchman does to clean linen. Still, he sat there, incur- ring the anger of the prosecuting lawyer and the judge, rather than speak ill of me. Wild, who spent far more time in the courts than I, surely knew Rowley’s temperament. He could not but have known that the judge was a man who held himself with more than his share of gravity and would not let an insult to his authority pass lightly. By defending me as he did, Wild risked great injury to himself and his trade, for he must now expose himself to Rowley’s hostility during future trials. As perjuring himself was among his most important sources of income, an adversarial judge could make his life most uncomfortable.

Antsy understood the situation no better than I. He brushed the rain off his face. “Given his reluctance to speak the truth, I have nothing more to hear from this witness,” the old lawyer said. “You may go, Mr. Wild.”

I rose to my feet. “Begging your pardon, m’lord, but I have not yet had a chance to cross-examine.”

“No more questions to this witness.” Rowley banged his gavel.

Wild stepped down and winked in my direction. I only stared blankly in return.

My pretty yellow-haired admirer wept into the sleeve of her coat, and she was not alone in her dismay. The spectators quickly answered with catcalls and hisses, and a few apple cores flew toward us. I was not such a popular figure with the mob that they would brook no insult to me, but they knew injustice when they saw it, and no rabble of this city will stand idly by while a fellow is mistreated by the law. Not in those days, when there was such little work to be had and bread was so dear. Rowley, however, had years of experience with such outbursts, and he banged his gavel once more, this time with an authority that brought down a veil of silence.

I was not so easily calmed. In our system of law, a defendant does not have a lawyer because it is presumed that the judge will act as his advocate. Often as not, however, a defendant finds himself with an unkind judge and thus with no protection whatsoever. I had never before had cause to lament the inequities of this system, for I was used to being in the position of wishing to see men convicted, that I might collect a bounty—and see justice served, of course. But now I found I could not call my own witnesses, question as I liked, or defend myself adequately. Judge Piers Rowley, a man I knew only from a distance, seemed intent upon destroying me.

Antsy next called Spirit Spicer, a fellow of whom I had never heard—how should I forget so colorful a name? He was young, only a working lad, and clearly of the lower ranks. Spicer had dressed himself to the best of his ability, but his blouse was torn in sev- eral places and his breeches stained in a way that any man of a respectable station would find embarrassing, to say the least. He had cut his hair short for the trial, using, I would suspect, a dull blade, and he looked as though he had caught his head in a grain mill.

Through a needlessly protracted line of questioning (no doubt to help him regain his sense of order after the unfortunate business with Wild), Antsy revealed that Spicer had been upon the quays in Wapping the day of Yate’s death and claimed to have witnessed the mayhem of that afternoon and the murder itself. “I saw that man there,” Spicer said, pointing to me. “He killed the fellow, Yate. He struck him, he did. And then he killed him. By striking him.”

“You are sure of this?” Antsy asked. His voice rang with triumph. His witness spoke as he wished. The rain had now let up somewhat. All was well in the world.

“I have never been so sure of very many things in some long while,” Spicer assured him. “Weaver done it. That’s for certain. I was close enough to see everything, and to hear it too. I heard what Weaver said before he done it. Heard his malicious and damning words, I did.”

The old lawyer squinted in evident confusion but proceeded all the same. “And what did Mr. Weaver say?”

“He said, ‘This is what happens to those who anger the man they call Johnson.’ That’s what he said. Clear as day. Johnson. That’s the name he said.”

I had no notion of who this Johnson was and neither, apparently, did Antsy. He opened his mouth to say something but then thought better of it and turned away, announcing that he had no more questions as he took his seat.

“Johnson,” Spicer repeated.

Judge Rowley turned to me. “Mr. Weaver, would you care to ask the witness a question or two?”

“I’m delighted to learn that Mr. Spicer is on the list of witnesses that I may, indeed, question,” I said. I regretted my words the instant I spoke them, but they drew a laugh from the gallery, and I took some comfort in that. Rowley had shown himself biased against me, but I was still foolish enough to believe his position would soon change. During my week in prison, I had been given little opportunity to inquire into Yate’s death, but I had sent my good friend Elias Gordon about town, asking questions for me, and I was fully confident that what we had discovered would soon end this farce.

I glanced over to the part of the galleries where Elias sat, and he nodded eagerly, his thin face flushed with pleasure. It was time to strike a fatal blow against this disgrace to justice.

I rose from my seat, brushed the ice off my coat, and approached the witness. “Tell me, Mr. Spicer. Have you ever met a man named Arthur Groston?”

Perhaps I anticipated that Spirit Spicer would blush or blanch or tremble. He might bear down and deny knowing Groston, in which case I would have to badger him until he confessed. But Spicer thought neither to resist nor, if his face was any indication of his heart, feel a jot of shame. For all the world, his easy and open grin suggested a fellow interested only in pleasing anyone who might be so kind as to ask him a question or two. “Aye, I’ve met Mr. Groston. More than once.”

The ease of this admission disoriented me, but I pressed on all the same. “In your time of knowing Mr. Groston, has he ever offered you any money to perform a service?”

“Aye, he has done so. Mr. Groston is extreme generous, he is, and he makes a point to look after me, on account of his cousin being a friend of my mother’s, sir. He believes in looking after family, sir, as does my family, which is why he helped me out.”

I smiled at the fellow. We were all friends here. “How would you describe the service that Mr. Groston asks of you?”

“I would describe it as generous and kind,” Spicer said. Here the crowd laughed and Spicer grinned broadly, imagining himself the mob’s darling rather than its clown.

“Allow me to ask that question another way,” I said.

Antsy rose slowly to his feet. “M’lord, Mr. Weaver is wasting the court’s time with this witness. I move you dismiss him.”

Rowley spent an instant considering Antsy’s request, and I believe he would have complied, but the crowd, sensing a bias, began to hiss. It began softly but soon swelled, so that the King’s Bench sounded as though it were a court of serpents. No apple cores this time; perhaps that was what agitated the judge. The noise held the menace of a storm not yet broke. Unwilling to risk a riot, Rowley said I might continue but advised that I cease my leisurely approach, for there were other men awaiting trial this day.

I began again. “Let me be plain,” I said to Spicer, “that the judge may not grow restless. Does Mr. Groston ever, to your knowledge, pay people to testify at trials?”

“For certain. He is an evidence broker. What else should he do?”

I smiled. “And did Arthur Groston provide you with money to say that you had seen me strike and kill Walter Yate?”

“Yes, sir,” Spicer said, nodding eagerly. “He paid me before to say suchlike things on suchlike occasions as this one, but he never before paid so much as the half crown he give me for saying as I done just now.”

The spectators murmured loudly. Here was drama they had never expected. In an instant I had completely devastated the prosecution. My aunt and uncle took each other’s hands and nodded in triumph. Elias strained in his seat to avoid standing and taking a bow, for it was his dedication that had led us to this bit of knowledge. The woman with the yellow hair clapped her hands together with joy.

“So.” I looked to the jury box, meeting the gaze of each man. “Do you now tell us, Mr. Spicer, that you never actually saw me harm Walter Yate, but that you said so only because you have been paid to say so by a notorious evidence broker?”

“That’s it,” Spicer said. “That’s it on the oyster’s shell, as they say.”

I threw up my hands in mock exasperation. “Why,” I demanded, “if you have been paid to say you saw me kill Mr. Yate, do you now admit that you never saw it at all?”

Spicer took a moment to puzzle over this question. “Well,” he suggested, “I got paid to say I saw something, but I never got paid to say I didn’t see it. So long as I said I saw it, I done what I was meant to have done.”

Having spent some years performing for the public as a fighter, I knew a little about the rhythm of spectacle, so I let his words hang in the air for a moment before commencing once more. “Tell me, Mr. Spicer,” I said, after I sensed a sufficient pause, “have you never heard of perjury?”

“For certain,” he said brightly, pointing to the jury box. “That’s them right there.”

“Perjury,” I explained, once the laughter diminished, “is a crime. It is the crime of swearing to speak the truth at a trial and then knowingly speaking false. Do you not think yourself guilty of this crime?”

“Oh, no.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Mr. Groston explained it to me. He said it ain’t no more a crime than it is blasphemy for an actor to speak out against God, if he do it while playing on the stage. That’s all it is.”

My having finished with the witness, Mr. Antsy moved to question Spicer once more. “Did you see Mr. Weaver kill Walter Yate?”

“Yes, I did!” he announced cheerfully. He then looked over to me, as though waiting for me to question him so he could tell me once more that he hadn’t.

Antsy next brought out another eyewitness, a man of middle years named Clark, who also said he had seen me commit this crime. When I had the chance to examine him, he resisted a bit more than young Mr. Spicer, but he at last admitted that he had been paid by the evidence broker, Arthur Groston, to say he had seen what he had not. I had every reason to regret that the law does not permit a defendant to call witnesses, for I would have liked very much to know who paid Mr. Groston to secure this evidence. But the information I had obtained, I believed, more than answered my purposes, and there would be time enough for Groston later. The Crown had no evidence against me but two eyewitnesses, men who had admitted that they had seen nothing at all but the coin in their hands.

And so, as I gazed at the yellow-haired woman, I thought myself safe. Mr. Antsy had done his job admirably, proving that age need be no impediment to any man who maintained a youthful ambition, but the evidence against me had been exploded. Nevertheless, when it came time for the judge to direct the jury, I realized I had been overly optimistic and had put perhaps too much confidence in that phantasm called truth.

“You have heard many things,” the honorable Piers Rowley told the jury, “and many things of a contradictory nature, too. You have heard witnesses say they have seen something and then, as though a trick done by Gypsy showman, you have heard them say they had not. You must decide how best to unravel this puzzle. As I cannot tell you which way to do so, I can only say that there is, perhaps, no more reason to believe a tale refuted than a tale spoken. You cannot know if these witnesses have been paid to say they saw something or paid to say they did not. I have no knowledge of evidence brokers, but I do know of villainous Jews and the tricks they will play to secure their freedom. I know that a race of liars might well pay honest coin to turn other men dishonest. I hope you will not be blinded by such petty cheats nor expose every Christian man, woman, and child in London to the ravages of a rapacious nation who might come to believe they can murder us with impunity.”

And so the jury went off to make its decision.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

Since the publication of the first volume of my memoirs, I have found myself the subject of more notoriety than I had ever known or might have anticipated. I cannot register a complaint or a lament, for any man who chooses to place himself in public sight has no reason to regret such attentions. Rather, he must be grateful if the public chooses to cast its fickle gaze in his direction, a truth to which the countless volumes languishing in the scribbler's perdition of obscurity can testify.

I will be frank and say that I have been gratified by the warmth with which readers responded to the accounts of my early years, yet I have been surprised too—surprised by people who read a few lines of my thoughts and consider themselves near friends, free to speak their minds to me. And while I shall not find fault with someone who has read my words so closely that he wishes to makes observations on them, I confess I have been confounded by the number of people who believe they may comment with impunity on any aspect of my life without a moment's regard to custom or propriety.

Some months after publishing my little volume I sat at a supper gathering, speaking of a particularly noxious criminal I intended to bring to justice. A young spark, on whom I had never before set eyes, turned to me and said that this fellow had better be careful, lest he meet the same end as Walter Yate. Here he simpered, as though he and I shared a secret.

My amazement was such that I did not say a word. I had not thought about Walter Yate in some time, and I had no idea that his name had retained any currency after so many years. But I was to discover that,while I had not contemplated this poor fellow, others had. Not a fortnight later another man, also a stranger, commented on a difficulty I faced by saying I should manage that affair in the same fashion that I had managed my business with Walter Yate. He said the name with a sly nod and a wink, as though, because he had uttered this shibboleth, he and I were now jolly co-conspirators.

It does not offend me that these men chose to reference incidents from my past. It does, however, perplex me that they should feel at liberty to speak of something they do not understand. I cannot fully express my bewilderment that such people, believing what they do about this incident, should mention it to me at all, let alone with more than a dash of good cheer. Does one go to a raree show and make light with the tigers regarding their fangs?

I have therefore decided that I must pen another volume of memoirs, if for no other reason than to disabuse the world of its ideas concerning this chapter of my history. I wish no more to hear the name Walter Yate spoken in naughty and secretive tones. This man, to the best of my knowledge, did nothing to deserve becoming the subject of a private titter. Therefore, I shall say now, truthfully and definitively, that I did not act violently upon Mr. Yate—let alone with the most definitive violence—something which, I have discovered, the world generally believes. Further, if I may disabuse the public of another misconception, I did not escape the most terrible of punishments for his murder by calling upon the influence of friends in the government. Neither of those tales is true. I had never known of these rumors because no one had ever spoken them to me before. But now, having published a few words of my life, I am every man's friend. Let me then do the friendly service of revealing the facts about the incident, if for no other reason than that it might be spoken of no more.





Walter Yate died, beaten in the head with an iron bar, only six days before the meeting of the King's Bench, so I had mercifully little time after my arrest to reflect on my condition while awaiting trial. I will be honest: I might have put that time to better use, but not once did I believe, truly believe, that I would be convicted for a crime I had not committed—the murder of a man of whom I had scarcely heard before his death. I ought to have believed it, but I did not.

So great was my confidence that I often found myself hardly even listening to the words spoken at my own trial. Instead, I looked out at the mob packed into the open-air courtroom. It rained a fine mist that day, and there was a considerable chill in the February air, but the crowds came anyway, crammed onto the rough and splintering benches, hunched against the wet, to watch the proceedings, which had attracted some attention in the newspapers. The spectators sat eating their oranges and apples and little mutton pastries, smoking their pipes and taking snuff. They pissed in pots in the corners and threw their oyster shells at the feet of the jury. They murmured and cheered and shook their heads as though it were all an enormous puppet show staged for their amusement.

I suppose I might have been pleased to be the subject of such a broad public curiosity, but I found no gratification in notoriety. Not when she was not there, the woman I most wanted to look upon in my time of sorrows. If I were to be convicted, I thought (only in the most romantical way, since I no more anticipated a conviction than that I should be elected Lord Mayor), I should only want her to come and cry at my feet, tell me of her regrets. I wanted her teary kisses on my face. I wanted her hands, raw and coarse with wringing, to take mine as she begged my forgiveness and pleaded to hear my vows of love repeated a hundred times. These were, I knew, mere fantasies of an overwrought imagination. She would not come to my trial, and she would not come to visit me before my fanciful execution. She could not.

My cousin's widow, Miriam, whom I had sought to marry, had wedded herself six months before to a man named Griffin Melbury, who at the moment of my trial busied himself with preparations for standing as the Tory candidate in the election soon to commence in Westminster. Now a convert to the Church of England and the wife of a man who hoped to rise as a prominent opposition politician, Miriam Melbury could ill afford to attend the trial of a Jewish ruffian-for-hire, one to whom she was no longer attached by the bonds of kinship. Kneeling at my feet or covering my face with tear-wet kisses was hardly the sort of behavior to which she was inclined under any circumstances. It would surely not happen now that she had given herself to another man.

Thus, in my hour of crisis, I dwelled less on the possibility of impending doom than I did on Miriam. I blamed her, as though she could be held accountable for this absurd trial—after all, had she married me, I might have abandoned thieftaking and would not have brought myself into the circumstances that had led to this disaster. I blamed myself for not pursuing her more vigorously—though three marriage proposals ought to meet any man's definition of vigor.

So, while the lawyer for the Crown attempted to convince the jury to convict me, I thought of Miriam. And, because even as I dwell with longing and melancholy I remain a man, I also thought about the woman with yellow hair.

It must be seen as no surprise that my mind wandered to other women. In the half year since Miriam had married, I had distracted myself—not with the intent of forgetting, you must understand, but with the aim of making my sense of loss more exquisite—largely by indulging in vices, and those vices consisted principally of women and drink. I regretted that I was not of a gambling disposition, for most men I knew found that vice to be as distracting as the two I favored, if not more so. But in the past, having paid the high price of money lost at game, I could not quite grasp the entertainment in viewing a pair of greedy hands collecting a pile of silver that had once been my own.

Drink and women: Those were vices on which I could depend. Neither needed to be of particularly fine quality; I was of no temper to be overly choosy. Yet, here was a woman, sitting at the edge of one of the benches, who absorbed my attention as nearly as anything could in those dark times. She had pale yellow hair and eyes the color of the sun itself. She was not beautiful, but she was pretty and had a kind of pert demeanor, with her pointy nose and sharp chin. Though no great lady, she dressed like a woman of the middling ranks, neatly, but without flair or much of a nod to fashion. Rather, she let nature do what her tailor could not, and exposed to the world in a deeply cut bodice the expanse of a dazzling bosom. There was, in short, nothing that would have kept me from finding her a delight in an alehouse or tavern, but no particular reason why she should command my attention while I sat on trial for my life.

Except that she did not once take her eyes from me. Not for a moment.

Others looked at me, of course—my uncle and aunt with pity and perhaps with admonition, my friends with fear, my enemies with glee, strangers with unpitying curiosity—but this woman fixed on me a desperate, hungry gaze. When our eyes locked, she neither smiled nor frowned but only met my look as though we had shared a lifetime together and no word need be spoken between us. Anyone observing would have thought us married or sweethearts, but I had never to my recollection—none the best during those six months of hearty drinking—seen her before. The enigma of her gaze monopolized my thoughts far more than the enigma of how I came to stand trial for the death of a dockworker I'd never heard of two days before my arrest.

The rain had begun to fall harder and turn frozen when the prosecuting lawyer, an old fellow named Lionel Antsy, called Jonathan Wild to the stand. In that year, 1722, this notorious criminal was still widely believed to be the only true bulwark against the marauding armies of thieves and brigands that plagued the metropolis. He and I had long been rivals in our thieftaking efforts, for our methods were none too similar. I believed that if I helped honest folk to recover their lost goods, I should receive a handsome reward for my labors. Granted, my work was not always quite so principled. I was willing to track down elusive debtors, to use the skills I'd gained in the pugilist's ring to teach lessons to rascals (provided they deserved such treatment in my eyes), to intimidate and frighten and scare men who required such usage. I would not, however, inflict harm on those I believed undeserving of rough treatment, and I'd even been known to let a debtor or two escape my capture—always with an apologetic lie to my employer—if I heard a credible tale of a starving wife or sick children.

Wild, however, was a ruthless rogue. He would send forth his thieves to steal goods and then sell the same items back to their owners, all the while pretending to be the lone voice of London's victims. These methods, I admit, were far more profitable than mine. Hardly a cutpurse in London lined his pockets without Wild taking his share. No murderer could hide his bloodstained hands from Wild's scrutiny, even if the great thieftaker had ordered the murder himself. He owned smuggling ships that visited every port in the kingdom and had agents in every nation in Europe. The stockjobbers of 'Change Alley hardly dared to buy and sell without his nod. He was, in short, a remarkably dangerous man, and he bore me no love.

In our incompatible efforts, we had clashed more than once, though our clashes tended toward the cool rather than the hot. We circled around each other, like dogs more eager to bark than fight. Nevertheless, I could not doubt that Wild would relish this opportunity to see me destroyed. As he had made a career out of perjuring himself before any jury that would listen, I now only waited to discover the severity of his condemnation and the verve with which he delivered it.

Mr. Antsy hobbled toward the witness, hunched over to keep the frozen rain from his face. He looked to be anywhere between fifty and one hundred years of age—gaunt as death itself, with his skin hanging loose about his face like an empty wine bladder, and his head bobbing above the mass of his greatcoat. His peruke, limp from the rain, hung askew and was of such a horrible condition I could only suppose he had purchased it at the dip in Holborn, where a man might pay threepence for the chance to blindly pull a used wig from a box. Not having bothered to shave that morning, and perhaps the morning before, his face was fertile with strands of weedy white hair that poked from out the rugged earth of his face.

"Now, Mr. Wild," he said, in his shrill and quivering voice, "you have been called here to testify to the character of Mr. Weaver because you are widely regarded as something of an expert in criminal matters—a student of the philosophy of crime, if you will."

"I like to think so of myself," he said, his country accent so thick that the jury leaned in closer, as though proximity might help them to understand better. Wild, on whom the rain hardly dared to fall, held himself erect and smiled almost pityingly at Mr. Antsy. How could an old pettifogger like Antsy inspire anything but contempt in a man who routinely sent his own thieves to hang that he might retrieve the forty-pound bounty offered by the state?

"You are widely regarded, sir, as the metropolis's most effective agent in the sphere of thieftaking, is that not right?"

"It is," Wild said, with an easy pride. He was advancing into his middle years then, but he appeared nonetheless handsome and vibrant in his trim suit and wig. He had a deceptively kind face, too, with large eyes, rounded cheeks, and a warm and avuncular smile that made people like him and trust him at once. "I am known as the Thieftaker General, and it is a title I bear with both pride and honor."

"And in this capacity, you have come to know the many aspects of the criminal world, yes?"

"Precisely, Mr. Antsy. Most people understand that if they should lose an article of some importance, or wish to track down the perpetrator of a crime, no matter how heinous, I am the man to seek."

There was never a poor opportunity to enhance one's reputation, I thought. Wild intended to see me hang and get a few puffs in the newspapers at the same time.

"Then you think yourself privy to the criminal doings in our metropolis?" Antsy asked.

"I have applied myself to this trade for many years now," Wild answered. "There are few matters of criminality that escape my notice."

He neglected to mention that he noticed these matters of criminality because, in general, he or his agents orchestrated them.

"Tell us, if you will," Antsy said, "of Mr. Weaver's connection to the death of Walter Yate."

Wild paused for a moment. I glared at him. I did my utmost to say with silent words that he must know I would never be convicted, and if he crossed me in this I would not let the matter go. Proceed, I told him with my eyes, and you will be proceeding toward your own doom. Wild met my stare for a moment and nodded ever so slightly, conveying a significance I could not fathom. He then turned to Antsy.

"I can tell you almost nothing of that," he said.

Antsy opened his mouth, but it seemed to take him a moment to realize the answer he received was not the one he had been anticipating. He pressed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, as though trying to squeeze Wild's answer from his flesh the way a cider maker wrings juice from an apple. "What do you mean, sir?" he asked, in a quivering voice more shrill than its usual.

Wild smiled slightly. "Only that I have no knowledge of the matters surrounding Yate's death or of Weaver's supposed involvement—only what I have read in the newspapers. It is my goal to discover the truth behind all horrific crimes, but I cannot learn everything. Though I do try, I promise you."

Every spectator at the King's Bench could see from the slackening of Antsy's face that the lawyer had expected something quite different from Wild. A lecture on the danger I posed to London, perhaps. A recounting of my former crimes. A list of atrocities in which he had long suspected my involvement. But Wild had a different game in mind—one that baffled me entirely.

Antsy looked up and grimaced. He took a deep breath that puffed out his chest nearly to the size of a normal man's and gritted his teeth into a deathly smile. "Do you not think Weaver a vicious man, quite capable of killing anyone, even a total stranger, without cause? And, accordingly, quite capable of killing Walter Yate? Is it not correct to say that you know with certainty that he did kill Walter Yate?"

"On the contrary," Wild answered blithely, like an anatomy instructor asked to discuss the mysteries of respiration. "I believe Weaver to be a man of honor. He and I are not friends; in truth, we often find ourselves opposed. If I may be so bold, I think Weaver to be a rather miserable sort of thieftaker, who does the state and those who pay him a disservice. But being miserable in his trade does not make him necessarily a wicked man any more than a cobbler should be called wicked for making pinching shoes. I have no more reason to think Weaver guilty of this crime than I do any other man. To my knowing, you might be as guilty as he."

Antsy spun toward the judge, Piers Rowley, who stared at Wild with an astonishment equal to the lawyer's. "M'lord," Antsy complained, "this is not the testimony I had expected. Mr. Wild was to have spoken of Weaver's crimes and cruelties."

The judge turned to the witness. Like Antsy, he was well into his later years, but with his large face and ruddy complexion he wore his age far more comfortably than the lawyer. Antsy appeared starved for all nourishment, but the judge looked to receive more than his share. His enormous jowls were big with beer and roast beef and puffed like a fat infant's.

"Mr. Wild," Rowley said to the witness, "you will provide Mr. Antsy with the testimony he wishes."

I had not quite expected this reply. I did not know him well by any means, but I had observed Rowley in the past—when called to testify against men I had helped bring to justice—and I had always found in him as much fairness and honesty as one could hope for in a man of his profession. He took bribes sparingly, and then only to secure a ruling he had intended to make without financial incentive. I had ever noted that he took his role as protector of the defendant seriously, and I had felt a measure of relief when I learned he was to preside over my trial. Now it appeared that my optimism had been misplaced.

"Begging your pardon, m'lord," Wild answered, "but I cannot answer for his expectations. Having sworn an oath to speak the truth, I must do so."

Here was something comical. Wild had no more loyalty to oaths than a Frenchman does to clean linen. Still, he sat there, incurring the anger of the prosecuting lawyer and the judge, rather than speak ill of me. Wild, who spent far more time in the courts than I, surely knew Rowley's temperament. He could not but have known that the judge was a man who held himself with more than his share of gravity and would not let an insult to his authority pass lightly. By defending me as he did, Wild risked great injury to himself and his trade, for he must now expose himself to Rowley's hostility during future trials. As perjuring himself was among his most important sources of income, an adversarial judge could make his life most uncomfortable.

Antsy understood the situation no better than I. He brushed the rain off his face. "Given his reluctance to speak the truth, I have nothing more to hear from this witness," the old lawyer said. "You may go, Mr. Wild."

I rose to my feet. "Begging your pardon, m'lord, but I have not yet had a chance to cross-examine."

"No more questions to this witness." Rowley banged his gavel.

Wild stepped down and winked in my direction. I only stared blankly in return.

My pretty yellow-haired admirer wept into the sleeve of her coat, and she was not alone in her dismay. The spectators quickly answered with catcalls and hisses, and a few apple cores flew toward us. I was not such a popular figure with the mob that they would brook no insult to me, but they knew injustice when they saw it, and no rabble of this city will stand idly by while a fellow is mistreated by the law. Not in those days, when there was such little work to be had and bread was so dear. Rowley, however, had years of experience with such outbursts, and he banged his gavel once more, this time with an authority that brought down a veil of silence.

I was not so easily calmed. In our system of law, a defendant does not have a lawyer because it is presumed that the judge will act as his advocate. Often as not, however, a defendant finds himself with an unkind judge and thus with no protection whatsoever. I had never before had cause to lament the inequities of this system, for I was used to being in the position of wishing to see men convicted, that I might collect a bounty—and see justice served, of course. But now I found I could not call my own witnesses, question as I liked, or defend myself adequately. Judge Piers Rowley, a man I knew only from a distance, seemed intent upon destroying me.





Antsy next called Spirit Spicer, a fellow of whom I had never heard—how should I forget so colorful a name? He was young, only a working lad, and clearly of the lower ranks. Spicer had dressed himself to the best of his ability, but his blouse was torn in several places and his breeches stained in a way that any man of a respectable station would find embarrassing, to say the least. He had cut his hair short for the trial, using, I would suspect, a dull blade, and he looked as though he had caught his head in a grain mill.

Through a needlessly protracted line of questioning (no doubt to help him regain his sense of order after the unfortunate business with Wild), Antsy revealed that Spicer had been upon the quays in Wapping the day of Yate's death and claimed to have witnessed the mayhem of that afternoon and the murder itself. "I saw that man there," Spicer said, pointing to me. "He killed the fellow, Yate. He struck him, he did. And then he killed him. By striking him."

"You are sure of this?" Antsy asked. His voice rang with triumph. His witness spoke as he wished. The rain had now let up somewhat. All was well in the world.

"I have never been so sure of very many things in some long while," Spicer assured him. "Weaver done it. That's for certain. I was close enough to see everything, and to hear it too. I heard what Weaver said before he done it. Heard his malicious and damning words, I did."

The old lawyer squinted in evident confusion but proceeded all the same. "And what did Mr. Weaver say?"

"He said, 'This is what happens to those who anger the man they call Johnson.' That's what he said. Clear as day. Johnson. That's the name he said."

I had no notion of who this Johnson was and neither, apparently, did Antsy. He opened his mouth to say something but then thought better of it and turned away, announcing that he had no more questions as he took his seat.

"Johnson," Spicer repeated.

Judge Rowley turned to me. "Mr. Weaver, would you care to ask the witness a question or two?"

"I'm delighted to learn that Mr. Spicer is on the list of witnesses that I may, indeed, question," I said. I regretted my words the instant I spoke them, but they drew a laugh from the gallery, and I took some comfort in that. Rowley had shown himself biased against me, but I was still foolish enough to believe his position would soon change. During my week in prison, I had been given little opportunity to inquire into Yate's death, but I had sent my good friend Elias Gordon about town, asking questions for me, and I was fully confident that what we had discovered would soon end this farce.

I glanced over to the part of the galleries where Elias sat, and he nodded eagerly, his thin face flushed with pleasure. It was time to strike a fatal blow against this disgrace to justice.

I rose from my seat, brushed the ice off my coat, and approached the witness. "Tell me, Mr. Spicer. Have you ever met a man named Arthur Groston?"

Perhaps I anticipated that Spirit Spicer would blush or blanch or tremble. He might bear down and deny knowing Groston, in which case I would have to badger him until he confessed. But Spicer thought neither to resist nor, if his face was any indication of his heart, feel a jot of shame. For all the world, his easy and open grin suggested a fellow interested only in pleasing anyone who might be so kind as to ask him a question or two. "Aye, I've met Mr. Groston. More than once."

The ease of this admission disoriented me, but I pressed on all the same. "In your time of knowing Mr. Groston, has he ever offered you any money to perform a service?"

"Aye, he has done so. Mr. Groston is extreme generous, he is, and he makes a point to look after me, on account of his cousin being a friend of my mother's, sir. He believes in looking after family, sir, as does my family, which is why he helped me out."

I smiled at the fellow. We were all friends here. "How would you describe the service that Mr. Groston asks of you?"

"I would describe it as generous and kind," Spicer said. Here the crowd laughed and Spicer grinned broadly, imagining himself the mob's darling rather than its clown.

"Allow me to ask that question another way," I said.

Antsy rose slowly to his feet. "M'lord, Mr. Weaver is wasting the court's time with this witness. I move you dismiss him."

Rowley spent an instant considering Antsy's request, and I believe he would have complied, but the crowd, sensing a bias, began to hiss. It began softly but soon swelled, so that the King's Bench sounded as though it were a court of serpents. No apple cores this time; perhaps that was what agitated the judge. The noise held the menace of a storm not yet broke. Unwilling to risk a riot, Rowley said I might continue but advised that I cease my leisurely approach, for there were other men awaiting trial this day.

I began again. "Let me be plain," I said to Spicer, "that the judge may not grow restless. Does Mr. Groston ever, to your knowledge, pay people to testify at trials?"

"For certain. He is an evidence broker. What else should he do?"

I smiled. "And did Arthur Groston provide you with money to say that you had seen me strike and kill Walter Yate?"

"Yes, sir," Spicer said, nodding eagerly. "He paid me before to say suchlike things on suchlike occasions as this one, but he never before paid so much as the half crown he give me for saying as I done just now."

The spectators murmured loudly. Here was drama they had never expected. In an instant I had completely devastated the prosecution. My aunt and uncle took each other's hands and nodded in triumph. Elias strained in his seat to avoid standing and taking a bow, for it was his dedication that had led us to this bit of knowledge. The woman with the yellow hair clapped her hands together with joy.

"So." I looked to the jury box, meeting the gaze of each man. "Do you now tell us, Mr. Spicer, that you never actually saw me harm Walter Yate, but that you said so only because you have been paid to say so by a notorious evidence broker?"

"That's it," Spicer said. "That's it on the oyster's shell, as they say."

I threw up my hands in mock exasperation. "Why," I demanded, "if you have been paid to say you saw me kill Mr. Yate, do you now admit that you never saw it at all?"

Spicer took a moment to puzzle over this question. "Well," he suggested, "I got paid to say I saw something, but I never got paid to say I didn't see it. So long as I said I saw it, I done what I was meant to have done."

Having spent some years performing for the public as a fighter, I knew a little about the rhythm of spectacle, so I let his words hang in the air for a moment before commencing once more. "Tell me, Mr. Spicer," I said, after I sensed a sufficient pause, "have you never heard of perjury?"

"For certain," he said brightly, pointing to the jury box. "That's them right there."

"Perjury," I explained, once the laughter diminished, "is a crime. It is the crime of swearing to speak the truth at a trial and then knowingly speaking false. Do you not think yourself guilty of this crime?"

"Oh, no." He waved a hand dismissively. "Mr. Groston explained it to me. He said it ain't no more a crime than it is blasphemy for an actor to speak out against God, if he do it while playing on the stage. That's all it is."

My having finished with the witness, Mr. Antsy moved to question Spicer once more. "Did you see Mr. Weaver kill Walter Yate?"

"Yes, I did!" he announced cheerfully. He then looked over to me, as though waiting for me to question him so he could tell me once more that he hadn't.

Antsy next brought out another eyewitness, a man of middle years named Clark, who also said he had seen me commit this crime. When I had the chance to examine him, he resisted a bit more than young Mr. Spicer, but he at last admitted that he had been paid by the evidence broker, Arthur Groston, to say he had seen what he had not. I had every reason to regret that the law does not permit a defendant to call witnesses, for I would have liked very much to know who paid Mr. Groston to secure this evidence. But the information I had obtained, I believed, more than answered my purposes, and there would be time enough for Groston later. The Crown had no evidence against me but two eyewitnesses, men who had admitted that they had seen nothing at all but the coin in their hands.

And so, as I gazed at the yellow-haired woman, I thought myself safe. Mr. Antsy had done his job admirably, proving that age need be no impediment to any man who maintained a youthful ambition, but the evidence against me had been exploded. Nevertheless, when it came time for the judge to direct the jury, I realized I had been overly optimistic and had put perhaps too much confidence in that phantasm called truth.

"You have heard many things," the honorable Piers Rowley told the jury, "and many things of a contradictory nature, too. You have heard witnesses say they have seen something and then, as though a trick done by Gypsy showman, you have heard them say they had not. You must decide how best to unravel this puzzle. As I cannot tell you which way to do so, I can only say that there is, perhaps, no more reason to believe a tale refuted than a tale spoken. You cannot know if these witnesses have been paid to say they saw something or paid to say they did not. I have no knowledge of evidence brokers, but I do know of villainous Jews and the tricks they will play to secure their freedom. I know that a race of liars might well pay honest coin to turn other men dishonest. I hope you will not be blinded by such petty cheats nor expose every Christian man, woman, and child in London to the ravages of a rapacious nation who might come to believe they can murder us with impunity."

And so the jury went off to make its decision.

Copyright© 2004 by David Liss
Read More Show Less

Foreword

1. The justice system in the eighteenth century seems outrageously
unjust. No defense attorneys, judges who make a living
through bribes, and shopkeepers who sell evidence. What do you
think will shock readers three hundred years from now about our
justice system?

2. Benjamin Weaver seems to be a mix of brutality and compassion,
the practical and the idealistic. What do you think of his
sense of justice? Do you agree with the decisions he makes of
whom to punish and whom to let go? What do his inconsistencies
tell you about his character?

3. Eighteenth-century parliamentary elections had expensive campaigns,
bribes, and thugs. They attracted the power-hungry and
the greedy, liars and thieves. Is there something inherent about
politics that draws these types of people to it? Is there anything
that can be changed about how campaigns are run that would
minimize corruption?

4. In one fell swoop, Miriam completely reinvented herself. She
converted, married a man from an utterly different background,
and is even called by a different first name. Do you think it is possible
to be happy with so many drastic life changes? Does turning
your back on your heritage have more to do with hating your past
than loving your future? Or is this simply the fulfillment of a lifelong
wish to live the life you believe you were meant to live and
not the one you were born into? Is this ability to reinvent yourself
something with which people in earlier times might have been
more comfortable?

5. When Weaver dresses as Matthew Evans or as a footman he discovers
a whole new world. Is it as easy in today’s worldto change
your clothes and dabble in a different world? Can you still walk a
mile in someone else’s shoes? Are social classes today as obvious or
permanent?

6. Weaver keeps expecting to be betrayed by Jonathan Wild, and
is constantly surprised when that doesn’t happen. Is Wild as untrustworthy
as Weaver thinks he is? Does the novel suggest that
there is honor among thieves?

7. There are several incidents of extreme cruelty to animals in the
novel. Dogmill, the most brutal villain, clearly relishes goose pulls
and cockfights, and was apparently responsible for killing Mendes’s
beloved dog. Is there a connection between cruelty to animals and
cruelty to humans? Is Mendes humanized by his love for his pets?
Or is his conduct toward his fellow man worse when juxtaposed
with his ability to display compassion and kindness to animals?

8. Grace Dogmill and Miriam Melbury are very different women,
yet they both refuse to settle into the roles that society would like
to place them in. Are they equally justified in not wanting to remain
where they have been pigeonholed? Who do you think is
more sympathetic? Who is stronger?

9. Is Griffin Melbury a good man with a gambling habit and a
quick temper or is he a bad man with a deceivingly pleasant personality?
Do you think that Weaver is objective enough to tell the
difference? Is Miriam?

10. What do you think of the ending? What does Weaver suggest
about his role in what happens to Melbury, and why does he depend
so much on hint and innuendo?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. The justice system in the eighteenth century seems outrageously unjust. No defense attorneys, judges who make a living through bribes, and shopkeepers who sell evidence. What do you think will shock readers three hundred years from now about our justice system?

2. Benjamin Weaver seems to be a mix of brutality and compassion,
the practical and the idealistic. What do you think of his sense of justice? Do you agree with the decisions he makes of whom to punish and whom to let go? What do his inconsistencies tell you about his character?

3. Eighteenth-century parliamentary elections had expensive campaigns,
bribes, and thugs. They attracted the power-hungry and the greedy, liars and thieves. Is there something inherent about politics that draws these types of people to it? Is there anything that can be changed about how campaigns are run that would minimize corruption?

4. In one fell swoop, Miriam completely reinvented herself. She converted, married a man from an utterly different background,
and is even called by a different first name. Do you think it is possible to be happy with so many drastic life changes? Does turning your back on your heritage have more to do with hating your past than loving your future? Or is this simply the fulfillment of a lifelong wish to live the life you believe you were meant to live and not the one you were born into? Is this ability to reinvent yourself something with which people in earlier times might have been more comfortable?

5. When Weaver dresses as Matthew Evans or as a footman he discovers a whole new world. Is it as easy in today’s world to change your clothes and dabble in a different world? Can you still walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? Are social classes today as obvious or permanent?

6. Weaver keeps expecting to be betrayed by Jonathan Wild, and is constantly surprised when that doesn’t happen. Is Wild as untrustworthy as Weaver thinks he is? Does the novel suggest that there is honor among thieves?

7. There are several incidents of extreme cruelty to animals in the novel. Dogmill, the most brutal villain, clearly relishes goose pulls and cockfights, and was apparently responsible for killing Mendes’s beloved dog. Is there a connection between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans? Is Mendes humanized by his love for his pets?
Or is his conduct toward his fellow man worse when juxtaposed with his ability to display compassion and kindness to animals?

8. Grace Dogmill and Miriam Melbury are very different women,
yet they both refuse to settle into the roles that society would like to place them in. Are they equally justified in not wanting to remain where they have been pigeonholed? Who do you think is more sympathetic? Who is stronger?

9. Is Griffin Melbury a good man with a gambling habit and a quick temper or is he a bad man with a deceivingly pleasant personality?
Do you think that Weaver is objective enough to tell the difference? Is Miriam?

10. What do you think of the ending? What does Weaver suggest about his role in what happens to Melbury, and why does he depend so much on hint and innuendo?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 24 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2012

    Excellent Read

    I won't give the general synopsis; that is covered quite sufficiently already. Will just say that Liss writes a wonderful story; characterization, plot, layers of intrigue and personalities are enough to make the reader engrossed. With Liss's writing, you're always struggling with that need to know the resolution of the problems but a strong desire for the story to go on forever. Just what you hope to find in a novel.

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

    Posted May 14, 2008

    Liss Keeps Getting Better

    This is now the third of Liss' historical fiction novels that I've read and I've enjoyed each one of them. Enough plot and suspense to keep you turning the pages while offering an insight into life in 18th century London (17th century Amsterday in one of the books). Liss has one modern novel I've yet to read but that's easily remedied

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2006

    Landscape in shades of gray

    As slimy as today's politics may be, our political candidates are cub scouts compared to those of early Georgian England. The spectacle of corruption referred to by the title encompasses the unabashed vote-buying and physical intimidation at the polls that surrounded the parliamentary election of 1722 in London. These stranger-than-fiction historical scenes provide the best moments in an otherwise rather conventional effort by an author who is capable of better. Jewish thief-taker Benjamin Winter has been framed, convicted and sent to Newgate for a murder he did not commit. Someone is out to get him for reasons unknown -- is it the Whigs? the Tories? shadowy Jacobite agents? While Benjamin tries to exonerate himself, the saving grace that keeps it all from becoming tedious is that there are flawed and complex suspects wherever we look -- there are no completely untainted good guys here.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2006

    A Wonderful Sequel

    I first read The Conspiracy of Paper and enjoyed it so much that I immediately read A Spectacle of Corruption. I hope that we hear more about Benjamin Weaver.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2005

    Solid sequel to Conspiracy....

    This was a solid sequel but at times Liss throws too much into the book about Tories, Whigs, and The Pretender. I realize the plot is set to the political season in early 18th century England, but I can see how it can get away from some people at times. It was nice to hear the return of Elias and Meriam, Wild and Mendes. Overall still a great book, but not as good as A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, which was one of the better books I have read. Look forward to another Ben Weaver adventure in mid 2006.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2004

    Benjamin Weaver Returns

    There's an old saying that goes,'No good deed goes unpunished.' It's 1722 and Benjamin Weaver finds himself on trial for a murder he didn't commit.This just after deciding to help a local minister in finding the source of threatening letters.As the trial progresses,Weaver finds the deck stacked against him or is it?Shortly after his guilty verdict is announced(death by hanging at Tyburn)as he is being led away a beautiful,mysterious woman slips him a pick and file.In a prison escape worthy of Jack Shepard,Weaver sets forward to clear his name and find the source of the letters.What is the connection?Who would want good guy Weaver dead?Aiding Weaver in his search is the lothario,Elias Gordon and Jonathon Wild's top man Abraham Mendes(an 18th century Hawk; think Spenser)Also in the mix is a raucous nationwide election which is every bit as dirty as our upcoming presidential election promises to be.Mr.Liss captures the sights and smells of a London centuries gone by quite graphically.A brilliant addition to the Weaver series.One can only hope that he returns soon!

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