A Conspiracy of Paper
By David Liss
Abacus, 2001

A Conspiracy of Paper is a historical mystery dealing with London finance in 1719. It is more interesting than it sounds.

Benjamin Weaver is a retired boxer who has taken up the slightly safer and more predictable career of debt collector. He finds himself, however, slipping into the role of what we today would call a private eye. His career choice takes a personal turn when he learns that his father's recent death was not an accident, but murder. It slowly emerges that his father had discovered some shady dealings in the newly-developing stock market -- which is to say, while stock-jobbing at the local coffee house.

This is very much the classic hard-nosed PI novel, with fist fights in alleys, bribes to bartenders, and criminal kingpins violently abducting the detective for a 'friendly word'. But it all takes place 300 years ago, and is quite well researched and detailed. Pistols are still uncommon and only used by the particularly wealthy (or villainous), and swords are standard issue. 'Police' haven't really been invented yet, although the courts are certainly a force to be reckoned with, as is the threat of incarceration in Newgate Prison. And if you happen to be a Jew -- as Benjamin is -- you are very much a second-class citizen, and in no position to mess in the business of the high and mighty.

This is an excellent work of historical fiction, with plenty of well-researched detail, including the language. David Liss has kept the idiom as close to the early 1700s as is possible without losing the modern reader, and has done a good job of keeping the spirit of that time present and accessible. It does result in slightly more dense -- and long -- novel than we usually see in detective novels, but it is worth it.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes a well done historical novel and a well done detective novel. I suspect that if you don't have at least a passing enjoyment of both of those, this may not be the book for you, but to be clear, this is very much a historical novel first, and a detective novel second. If you have low tolerance for flowery speech and old customs, you will not much enjoy this book.

A Conspiracy of Paper is the first book in the Benjamin Weaver series, the second of which is A Spectacle of Corruption.

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