August 10, 2009

BOOKS: The Devil's Company, David Liss (2009)

Third in Liss' series of historical/financial thrillers featuring Benjamin Weaver.

The setting is London in the 1720s, where Benjamin works as a "thief-taker," sort of a cross between a bounty hunter and a modern private eye. His reputation as a former champion boxer helps him get clients who might otherwise be reluctant to hire a Jew.

His client this time has hired him to pull off what should be a simple con game at the gambling tables, but things go very wrong, and Benjamin finds himself being blackmailed into taking part in a complicated scheme involving the East India Company. It becomes clear very quickly that there are many different hands pulling strings, and Benjamin is even less sure than usual who's on his side, or even what side he's supposed to be on.

There's a very large cast of scheming characters and victims here, and Liss does a superb job of handling them; each character is so crisply drawn that I was never confused about the current state of affairs (at least, no more so than Benjamin is at any given moment). Liss also handles very well the difficult task of depicting period social attitudes towards various minorities -- an Indian watchman, the denizens of a particularly unusual brothel -- without making us hate the characters who hold those attitudes; in part, he does this by making Benjamin and his friends a bit more tolerant than most men of the era.

The prose has enough flavor of the 18th century to be convincing, but not so much that you feel as if you're slogging through some deadly high-school classic. The clues to the mystery are fairly laid out, and the twists and turns of the story never feel arbitrary.

As with the earlier volumes in the series, Liss delights in exploring the early stages of institutions that we take for granted today. A Conspiracy of Paper was set against the backdrop of the earliest stock markets; A Spectacle of Corruption dealt with a nasty Parliamentary election. (The Coffee Trader, a spinoff of sorts from the series which features Benjamin's uncle as protagonist, deals with the birth of commodities trading.) This time, we get an inside look at the growth of the East India Company, a forerunner of today's corporations; there's a very contemporary feeling to conversations in which characters argue that the company's interests should take priority over the nation's interests (or in the extreme case, that the company's interests are the nation's interests).

Marvelous stuff, and highly recommended to fans of historical fiction, financial thrillers, and mysteries.

No comments: