Sunday, October 26, 2008

Reading Journal: "A Conspiracy of Paper"

David Liss, A Conspiracy of Paper. Random House 2000. There is one used copy of this book available at Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield.

"We're storytellers, not scholars," author Kathy Lynn Emerson writes in her book How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries. But David Liss is both: a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature and a skillful storyteller. He was, he says in an historical note at the end of his first novel, a doctoral student at Columbia University, researching "the ways in which eighteenth-century Britons imagined themselves through their money." His research led him to write A Conspiracy of Paper, a mystery novel set in the coffeehouses of London's Exchange Alley, which formed the first stock market in the English-speaking world.

The year is 1719, and the powerful South Sea Company, rival of the equally powerful Bank of England, is poised to assume the lion's share of the national debt in return for stock in the company. In the midst of this frenzy of financial speculation, ex-boxer and thief-taker Benjamin Weaver is called upon to investigate the suspicious death of a Jewish stock-jobber: his own father, from whom he has been estranged for many years.

Liss does many things well. He creates a compelling protagonist in Benjamin Weaver, a man of action and conscience, the son of Jewish immigrants who has struggled to make a place for himself amid the pitfalls and prejudices of English society. Liss expertly recreates eighteenth-century London, its powdered wigs and its cesspools, without calling attention to his scholarship. The world of the novel seems lived in, not researched. Liss skillfully invests Weaver, his narrator, with a style that gives the flavor of eighteenth-century English without becoming "inhospitable or circuitous." Finally, Liss does a fine job of explaining the intricacies of eighteenth-century finance without shifting back into the character of doctoral student.

At the heart of the mystery is a fundamental tension in eighteenth-century finance: the notion that real value (i.e., gold and silver) has been replaced by "the promise of value" (i.e., paper money and stock certificates). This was a novel situation in the 1700s, and one that made most people uncomfortable. Instead of residing in gold and silver, value resides in the banks and corporations, and the men behind them, who are powerful enough to guarantee the promissory value of paper. It was easy enough to imagine powerful cabals conspiring behind the scenes to manipulate the market in paper.

How can we be sure that something is actually worth its face value—that it actually is what it proclaims itself to be? This is the basic question, and it's a good question around which to build a mystery.

1 comment:

Christopher Tassava said...

I loved this book, and Liss' other books, too. The book on coffee was especially interesting, I thought, and sent me off to a bunch of books on coffee history.

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