A Conspiracy
of Paper

David Liss
(Random House)
Benjamin Weaver lives in the London of 1720. It's a dangerous and pestiferous place to be. He describes his work as "protector, guardian, bailiff, constable-for-hire and thief-taker." Since there is no security force, he and hundreds like him are the police of the city. As is usual in such cases, it is hard to tell the criminals from the "constables-for-hire."

The most notorious of these is Jonathan Wild who would have his "prigs" (hired hands) steal some valuable, preferably from the nobility, and then retrieve it and sell it back for 50 - 75% of its value.

    It was no fair deal, but a fairer one than having to replace the property, so in this way the citizens of London retrieved their lost goods and praised the man who stole them.

A Conspiracy of Paper however, deals with far more than simple thievery. Benjamin's father was murdered. Benjamin comes to believe that his death was the result of the old man's investigations into The South Sea Company --- that fraudulent stock was being issued, and corrupt government dealings were creating a bubble in the stock, all fed by "stock-jobbers" --- those who bought and sold stocks in the various coffee houses.

We quickly get immersed in the sordid world of 18th Century make-money, quickly become a part of the speech and entertainment and dress and culture (and dangers) of that time. Indeed, a professor of 18th Century history could do worse than assign A Conspiracy of Paper to enliven, for the students, the culture of a world just beginning to substitute other symbols gold and silver.

The early 18th Century was a time when the world's currency was to change forever into what our hero calls "The New Finance." It was the coming of paper money, which could be manipulated to create huge fortunes. This is one of the themes.

But there are others --- not the least of which is the fact that Benjamin Weaver is what they call a "Hebrew." His Jewishness is a club that is used against him regularly and brutally. Whenever he is in conflict, or merely going about his business, he runs into another one of those speeches, which associates Jews with greed, trying to take over the financial world of this and other budding capitalistic state. It's a subplot but, indeed, it is the machinery that runs A Conspiracy of Paper. It gives one the taste and feel for the ugliness of prejudice --- ill-disguised (or not disguised at all).

Here is a speech given to Benjamin by one Sir Robert, in a club that caters to the nobility:

    "I do not mean to insult your people. I suppose there are reasons --- historical reasons --- that explain why you are the way you are. The Popes never permitted members of the Romish faith to engage in usury," he explained to the others, perhaps believing that I was familiar with all aspects of Christian history related to Jews. "And thus Jews gladly took the trade for themselves. Now, Weaver, your race seems tainted by that trade. And here your people are, working your stock-jobbery in this country. One wonders if you are not trying to take the very nation itself away from us. Must we say farewell to Britain and greet instead Judea Nova? Shall St. Paul's be turned into a synagogue? Are we to see public circumcisions in the streets?"

In his olla podrida, Liss is able to mix this theme beautifully along with so many others: the coming of "reason," the beginnings of capitalism and the public ownership of stock, the first "panic" (the South Sea Bubble), a world where there is no police protection at all, the continuous war rumblings between France and England, the threat of overthrowing the king and, not the least, class consciousness, coming down to the simplest form, in the accents, the dress and even the diseases of the denizens of the time:

    I could see...a man who had lived perhaps fifty years, each of which had left its mark upon a gaunt visage tightly wrapped with blotchy pale skin. A bit of snuff was encrusted about a nose that had been well eaten by the ravages of the French pox. His attire, fashionable in its cut, informed me of a desire to appear the gentleman, but the flimsy fabric of his red-and-black suit of clothes, also sprinkled liberally with snuff, and even the weave of his wig, were of poor quality.

The word "detective" doesn't appear. But this is indeed a murder mystery. And as all good mysteries must, there is a wealth of characters and a plot that lets us pursue, as our detective does, the slowly unfolding truth. There is even a moral, which is (are you ready?) the unreality of reality. This is one of the new financiers, in his final conversation with Weaver:

    "Lying to you then was necessary. It is no longer so."

    "So you say. But how am I to know that? Your word is meaningless. You have rendered it so. Now you tell me to believe you, but there is no basis for that belief?"

    He smiled. "You need only choose to believe, Mr. Weaver. That is your basis."

    "Like the new finance," I observed. "It is true only so long as we believe it to be true."

They say that this is Liss' first novel. Let us hope that this is but one of a series.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

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