Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss: Review by Anachronist

A Conspiracy of Paper: A NovelBook 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 Portuguese Jews 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.

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 era, washes his head thrice a month to avoid lice and used 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 and the powerful business elite. 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 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.


  1. This is there place where I once again gasp from horror that you wanted a HEA. it shocks me every time ;)

  2. What do you want, I am a complicated human being which means I can surprise! Thanks for your comment Blodeuedd!

  3. 18th century London is one of my favorite settings. It's great to hear that the author has depicted that period so vividly.Like the main character, I have limited information about the world of finances. Still, I want to read this book since you say that it's " Historical fiction at its finest". Thanks for the review! :)

  4. I need my happily ever after too even though it isn't always realistic. This sounds like it is a good book even though it is not my genre - historical and detective EEK! Great review.

  5. Uunputdownable is officially my new favorite word....Ever!!! Wonderful review :D

  6. Hmmm, devoured it huh? I may have to pick this book up! Nice review!

  7. @ Misha, it is a very good novel and it was even chosen the best debut novel of the year so I am not alone in my stupid infatuation, as dilettante as it is.

    @ Nic, thank you!

    @animewookie - I love that word too! I bet it is not official but still...

    @ Savannah do pick it up! Yes, "to devour" is a good verb when you simply can't stop reading although you definitely should have long ago...

  8. I'm not much for 'detective' type stories... Hmmm. I don't know!

  9. What an amazing review! It's so good to know that even if we know nothing about finance/economics we'll be able to follow along because I have to say that is one area where my eyes just start to glaze over and I can't force myself to pay attention:) Love the way you set this review up, it's so easy to get a feel for the book!

  10. It's too bad you don't like this author very much.. ;)

  11. @Bookish Brunette - this one is an intricate detective story but still very likeable.

    @Jenny you really made me blush! If a book is good it's easy to write a good review!

    @Melissa, our gracious host - thanks for commenting! The full extend of my infatuation remains to be revealed ;)

  12. While books about financial crises, fictional or not, do not ordinarily tempt me, your enthusiastic review has nudged towards considering this book. Incidentally, the title sounds like my overburdened desk at work.

  13. So this is where Ben comes from! Good to know. Sounds like a very interesting story, though I don't read much historical fiction. Still, I find Ben very admirable for taking sex safe practices seriously.

    Though I'm bummed to hear that Ben doesn't get his HEA, I think I will still be reading this one. Maybe the sequel will have better things for him. :)

  14. This sounds like a great book though I'm also a fan of happy endings (isn't that what I escape into books for?) and if this one doesn't have one then I be put off. It's certainly worth looking into thought. Great review!

  15. Very good review on this one. Not really my kind of read, but I liked the review. Thank you!


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