The Latin expression Caveat emptor, or "Let the buyer beware" is certainly apt when one ventures into capital markets. If these appear messy, dangerous, and difficult to understand today, it seems they always have been, as is well-illustrated in a very interesting piece of historic mystery writing by David Liss titled A Conspiracy of Paper.
I really enjoyed reading this book this week and throughout, it struck me how much of the storyline in this novel, set in early 18th century London, still rings true today -- particularly as we end a decade that witnessed a staggering amount of corporate malfeasance.
A Conspiracy of Paper deals with murder and market speculation, seen through the eyes of a fascinating “thief-taker” or detective Benjamin Weaver who, initially, knows nothing about finance. So the novel provides a great introduction to how capital markets worked in 1719 London – and provides a foundation for understanding how they still work today.
With the range of characters and the colour of 18th century London society, the intricate, fast-moving plot fascinates even as it informs.
(As an aside, I confess that I have seen Liss’s novels in bookshops for years and passed them by, fearing they were dry, non-fiction books about the history of capitalism. History, yes, but not at all dry!)
Benjamin, Liss’s hero in this tale of money and murder, is a likeable former boxer, social outsider, and the son of a Portuguese "stock-jobber" – likely the equivalent of today’s stock market broker. As the novel opens, Benjamin is long estranged from his family, especially his despised father.
However, it seems his father recently died in a horse-drawn carriage hit and run. And while the death of a Jew has been quickly written off as an accident, Benjamin is hired by two different men to solve apparently unrelated cases that very soon lead him to suspect his father and another man were murdered over what they had discovered about a very important company, the South Sea Co.
The cases take him deep into the darkness of London’s financial markets and all elements of London society, where he meets all kinds of colourful and wicked characters.
Benjamin, who was known in his boxing days as the Lion of Judah because of his Jewish nationality, has given up the ring for work as ''protector, guardian, bailiff, constable-for-hire and thief-taker,'' as the book opens. The two cases he becomes embroiled in force him to reunite with his family, where he finally meets his cousin’s widow -- the beautiful and mysterious Miriam, who adds another twist to the complex plot.
While the story is fiction, the key organization at the heart of the mystery, the South Sea Company, was real and the 18th century stock market hysteria that swelled around it eventually burst in an enormous and expensive scandal that will sound all too familiar to readers.
I confess, I love mysteries and I enjoy historical fiction, especially when it exposes me to new worlds and new information that’s helpfully packaged in a fast-paced story!
As I said, I had dodged these novels in the past, fearing they would be too dull and dusty.
But just before Christmas, I was looking for something new and different to read, and decided to try a Liss novel. At my local library, I found The Coffee Trader, one of Liss’s more recent mysteries which is set in Amsterdam in the 18th century. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to start at the beginning of his works and picked Liss’s very first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper. It was even better, and now I’m hooked!
Today I’m going to pick up the second Liss mystery featuring Benjamin Weaver and involving a period political scandal. I’m looking forward to seeing more parallels between the past and the present.