Review: A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

Book info:
Form: e-book, mobi format
Genre: historical fiction/murder mystery
Target audience: adults


The book, a first-person narration, is set in 1719 in London, one year before the famous stock-market crash known in the English-speaking world as the South Sea Bubble.

What happens when a big, bad corporation finds out that you know its dirty secrets and you intend to expose them? Well, it depends. You might be ‘accidentally’ run down by a hackney cab at night or you might all of a sudden display some suicidal tendencies and hang yourself in your own house. The choice is rather not entirely yours.

The main lead of this book is called Benjamin Weaver but his real surname used to be Lienzi; he comes from a family of PortugueseJews who fled the Inquisiton. One day he is informed that the recent death of his father, who had been run down by a hackney, was most probably arranged. A William Balfour, the son of another victim (self-murder), who had been Benjamin’s father’s close associate, asked him to investigate both cases. The problem is that Benjamin had been estranged from his family since he turned fourteen and now he knows very little about stock-jobbing, finances, and banking. He had never finished any school – he is an ex-pugilist and now he earns his living as a kind of private investigator, specializing in rather straightforward activity of retrieving stolen goods. Why such a person could find employment in those times? The answer is simple.

William Hogarth - The PitImage via Wikipedia
In the early 18th century there were no British police as such, only the so-called thief-takers. The London underworld was ruled by one of them, Jonathan Wild – a real person and the first real crime lord ever officially recorded. He used to profit from selling thieves he allegedly “caught” to the justice – the price for one such individual was 40 pounds – and of course he caught only those who crossed him or dared to defy his power (for comparison – a poor laborer in London could earn only 20 pounds a year and still was able to feed his family – I am quoting the author’s explanations). It was not Wild’s only source of profit of course. His people stole different things and then used to resell them to their legal proprietors, pretending that they “retrieved” them. Wild  also controlled most of prostitution and prohibited traffic in the city. If somebody was intelligent enough to see through his  practices, he would be a potential customer of such people as Benjamin Weaver (a fictional character) but usually people considered Wild a hero who fought crime day and night. Until he was hanged that is. Ok, let’s return to the summary itself.
Although the conspiracy of the title seems to go way over Benjamin’s head or experience he decides he owes that much to his late father and starts the investigation. He will need all the luck and help he can get, though, as it is clear from the very beginning that he got involved in something far bigger than an occasional thievery or murder. He will have to cross his path with Wild and his henchmen more than once, he will also have to reconcile with his uncle, meeting in the process Miriam, an intelligent, beautiful woman he will fall in love with.
What I liked:
Plenty. Let me state it loud and clear – it was a delicious book and I simply devoured it. It kept me up far later than I should have been several nights in a row and for a good reason – although the book was rather long it was unputdownable.
A Conspiracy Of Paper has it all. It presents very well developed and interesting characters (particularly Benjamin Weaver – let’s face it, you have to adore a man who, living in that strange, unhygienic era, washes his head thrice a month to avoid lice and uses condoms made of sheep intestines), an exciting and mysterious plot, an ability to make early 18th century London come alive for the reader and a compelling historical perspective of the London’s stock market in its infancy, the criminal underworld, the powerful business elite which doesn’t hide its anti-Semitic sentiments.

If you are not interested in the world of finances, don’t worry – our main character knows precious little about it either so there is ample (but never overly so) explanation provided. If, however, you have studied the history of economics or particularly the trade disasters of modern day stock exchanges  you will be able to identify with the excitement and confusion of the 1719 trade market even better. Believe me, the South Sea Company and dark machinations to protect their public image while earning as much as they can are a surprisingly contemporary topic. A fool and his money are soon parted after all- and nowhere so quickly as in the stock market, it would seem.

The author employs high action plot in a very good way, seducing the reader to enter the financial trading scene. I was happy to find all the accumulated implausibilities and unlikelihoods neatly wrapped up at the end – no mean task for such a long book. Additionally, Mr. Liss writes with confidence and humour. Is there anything more you can wish for?
What I didn’t like:
One really minor quibble from me (and now my romance-loving friends will gasp with surprise and clap with delight): I wanted so much a good solid HEA for Benjamin that my hands itched to slap that rebellious, stupid, overly ambitious Miriam over her lovely but stubborn head. Of course the way the author tied up the romantic plot line was very realistic and logical but still it made me sad. Well, real life is mostly sad, isn’t it? Dear me, I suppose I complain because I keep bad company. ;p Or maybe because it’s summer and I’ve been spoiled by too much chicklit?
Final verdict:
If you  like detective as well as historical novels, you will be delighted with this book. I found it completely absorbing and entertaining – a very strong contestant to the title of the best book I’ve read this year. Historical fiction at its finest – I can hardly wait for the sequel!

William Hogarth’s Gin Lane – I had it on my mind all the time.
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7 Responses to Review: A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

  1. Tracy says:

    This one sounds more original than most books of this genre, so I'd certainly try it.

  2. It sounds interesting. People forget what a blessing a well-paid police force can be.

  3. anachronist says:

    Tracy do try it, I think you might like it as well.The Red Witch the key words here are well-paid and professional police force. Otherwise I completely agree.

  4. Blodeuedd says:

    *faints*I am shocked, utterly shocked. You, you! No way, I refuse to believe it. You wanted a HEA. Oh the shock.Lol, maybe I am slowly getting to you

  5. anachronist says:

    I've just checked on Goodreads- I am in 30% compatible with you when it comes to book choices, Blodeuedd. You might slowly get to me eventually. Just remember, this month I am officially insane.

  6. Heh! You wanted an HEA! *dances* At least he does put sheep intestines to good use! *snicker*

  7. anachronist says:

    Heh! You wanted an HEA! Yes and I am not ashamed of it. I suppose there is still some hope for me ;p

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