Review: A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss.

Book info:

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (March 16, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375508554
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375508554
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Target group: adults


We meet again Benjamin Weaver, who remains the main hero and the narrator, like in the case of The Conspiracy of Paper, reviewed by me here. He starts the book as a  spurned adorer of Miriam, his cousin’s widow, drinking his way into oblivion because that ambitious woman converted to Christianity and married a handsome, promising Tory politician, Griffin Melbury, in an effort to become a real  fashionable English lady. Well, it was always her secret wish after all but be careful what you wish for…

 Soon the situation of Benjamin goes from bad to worse – he’s just been sentenced to hang by his neck for a murder he clearly didn’t commit. The judge, previously known as a decent, honest lawyer, now seemed simply hell-bent on pronouncing Benjamin guilty no matter what. At the end of a very skewed, outrageous trial, however, an unknown woman manages to slip him secretly a file and a picklock – two tools of his former thieving trade which are going to save his life and help him escape the horrible Newgate prison. Now Benjamin, an escaped convict with a large bounty placed on his head, leads a very precarious life. In order to clear his name he has two main tasks– to discover who wanted him dead and who was equally desperate to give him one more chance.

As the action is set in 1722, the year of General Election, widely viewed at that time as a kind of referendum whether king George I was the right ruler for England, we will see plenty of political intrigues, involving people from different walks of life, men and women alike. Two main political parties, Tories, associated with old money, and Whigs, supporting nonconformist Protestants, Jews and new landless wealth, will use any trick in their books to gain power. The life of Benjamin might depend on the outcome of the election so he will have to keep all his wits about him most of the time and take some really desperate steps. Like, say, befriending Miriam’s new husband, the last person in England he would like to befriend, or trusting a bit more his former rival, the most powerful thief-taker in London, Jonathan Wild.

What I liked:

The main character – nothing changed here. We deal here with a very likeable rouge but if you take into account the times he lived in and his underprivileged position within the English society you might judge him even less harshly. Of course Benjamin is hardly a saint – it makes him as well-rounded a character as I like. Despite tough conditions he always complies with his own set of rules although he is not forced to do it by anyone or anything, apart from his own conscience. Indeed, when you come to think about it he is fairer and more honest than most of high-born politicians-gentlemen who shamelessly sell their votes and political views to the highest bidder. In this part I found Ben really well fleshed-out and from time to time very amusing, still too infatuated with Miriam to behave rationally even if it would be in his best interest. Love is blind but I do hope he will get cured soon.

The political background. Once again the period was researched thoroughly and explained in a very entertaining but accurate manner (as far as I know of course). At the beginning of the book we get even a short time line and key political terms included so you don’t have to feel like an idiot and you don’t need to be a history geek to get a grasp of the whole situation very quickly. The author never condescends to his readers and I truly appreciate his approach.

Two female characters, Miriam Melbury and Grace Dogmill, featured in this book, were really exceptional although, I must say, not exactly as likeable as the main lead. Both being intelligent, capable and ambitious women, they did their best to find a better postion in a society dominated by men and get away with it. Miriam married an allegedly respectable politician and changed her denomination, practically reinventing herself as an English lady; Grace could be called a political animal – she took an active part in canvassing on behalf of a Whig candidate, supported by her brother, and tried to lead an independent life, even daring to chose her own lovers and not wanting to marry anyone, a very bold move for any woman at that time. Their strategies, although different, had advantages and disadvantages and I loved the fact these were fully exposed during the narration. However I found both ladies terribly selfish that’s why my sympathy for them was limited. Still I am glad we met.

Finally the baddies (I promise, I will be short now): I simply adore baddies who are as close as possible to real life people – complex characters, with many layers (like onions or Shrek who wasn’t a complete baddie but still, you get my drift) and an interesting personality. You can find such villains in this book – Jonathan Wild and Dennis Dogmill are just two examples. Thank you Mr. Liss for them, it was a treat.

What I didn’t like:

We are left with a whodunit mystery cliffhanger at the very end and, reading an interview with the author, I found out it was a deliberate move. I do not like cliffhangers although I do understand their uses when it comes to making people buy the next part of a series. Still not fair.

Final verdict:

A great sequel to the brilliant first part and a great historical fiction you can get addicted to. Yes, I’ve ordered the next book. I know, bad Anachronist. One more thing – this book can be easily read as a stand-alone novel so those of you who like jumping right in the middle of things won’t have any difficulties at all (wink at Melissa).

Jonathan Wild in the condemned cell at Newgate...Jonathan Wild in the Newgate prison awaiting his execution via Wikipedia

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8 Responses to Review: A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss.

  1. Aarti says:

    I really enjoyed this series when I read them, though now that I've read your review, I see I don't remember much at all 😉 Though I DO remember him being in love with Miriam, I don't remember much else. I haven't heard about another outing in this series coming out recently- hopefully there's one to look forward to soon!

  2. anachronist says:

    Thanks, Aarti for your visit!The next book in the series is called Devil's Company – here you can find it on the Amazon. It also happens to me – I read a book, I even enjoy it, and then, after some time, I hardly remember anything else ;).

  3. Blodeuedd says:

    Grrr cliffhangers. I hate them with a vengence. They are pure evil coming straight from Tartarus.That being said, well it does make one read more 😉

  4. Oh a cliffie! 😛 However, I'm glad you enjoyed this one as well. Looks like the politics everywhere and at every time seem to be the same. I think you should get the next 2 and mix it up a bit. Read book 4 first and then 3. 🙂

  5. anachronist says:

    LOL there is no possibility of mixing any further, Melissa- there are only three in the series. Well, perhaps the author will decide to write more but it seems I am doomed to read them in the right order!Blodeuedd, they are pure evil, that's right, but very profitable ones. If I write a book I might be tempted, being myself evil and all 😉

  6. Great review. Its good it can be read as a stand alone book, I so don't like books where it's pertinent that you read the prequels, or be left out the loop or doomed to read everything over again, because their dumping in backstory.Thanks for sharing.

  7. anachronist says:

    My pleasure, Lena, thanks for your comment!

  8. Tracy says:

    Sounds like a good summer read.

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