Monday, May 29, 2006

Book Review: A Conspiracy of Paper

I was reluctant to read any of David Liss's historical novels due to my adverse reaction to Dorothy Dunnett's fifteenth century Dutch series, but an airport bookstore and a too-quickly-finished I Promessi Sposi led me to make a begrudging purchase.

Imagine my delight, then, when A Conspiracy of Paper turned out to be more of a hard-boiled detective novel than a boring saga about a eighteenth century family of stock traders. Ben Weaver, a former prizefighter, became a thief-taker and returner of lost property after an injury forced him from the ring. Estranged from his Jewish family and name, Ben ekes out a respectable living catching robbers and taking other odd jobs. But after his father's death in a horse carriage hit-and-run, a young gentleman appears at his door. The death was no accident, he claims, and neither was the alleged suicide of his own father. The deaths are linked, but only after an investigation that takes him from the theatre to Exchange Alley will Ben determine how. We meet a beautiful lady, a whore without a heart of gold, wealthy businessmen who will stop at nothing to ensure the success of their big deal, and the world's first modern crime lord as we follow Ben's investigation of his father's machinations in that newly minted institution, the stock market.

Aside from a few rather gratuitous jabs at the corporation and a couple of villains who get a little monologuey, Liss's first novel is uniformly superb, with plenty of informative historical detail to flesh out the potboiler mystery plot. Ben is a detective in the best Sam Spade mold and his dissolute doctor friend echoes a more decadent version of Watson. I am excited about the book's two sequels.
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