If you pick it up because you like historical fiction, A Conspiracy of Paper will ably transport you to the bedlam and lawlessness of 1719 London. But if you’re a fan of mystery novels, chances are you’re going to give up on a plot where too much is going on to keep it all straight.
Author David Liss is an American specialist in 17th-century English literature who wrote the novel while completing his doctoral dissertation. He obviously feels confident about the language and the historical period. The story is written in 18-century English as the memoir of Benjamin Weaver, akin to a private detective of the time. Weaver usually is hired to find thieves, but this time a man named Balfour asks him to look into his father’s supposed suicide. The elder Balfour died within 24 hours of Benjamin’s own father’s being trampled by a horse-drawn carriage. Balfour suggests the two deaths may be related murders.
The investigation takes Benjamin into the inner workings of Exchange Alley, where “stock jobbers”—his father was one—are ushering in a new financial world in which paper is replacing tangibles like gold and silver. The two men may have been killed because they planned to expose counterfeit stocks. Benjamin makes his way into many corners of London—drawing rooms, coffee shops, brothels, carriages, theaters, prisons, and dark, putrid alleys—and ruffles enough feathers that he often has to call upon his ex-boxer’s skills. That he’s a Jew and thus disdained by English society makes it all the more difficult for him to get answers.
Overburdened by the many details of Benjamin’s educating himself on the stock market; reconciling with his relatives, whose help he needs; and investigating, thinking about, and talking about the various probabilities of the case, readers may have trouble keeping track of clues and following the thread. It’s too bad the plot line isn’t clearer, because the similarities between the speculative greed of three centuries ago with that of today could have made for a memorable book.
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