I like well-written mysteries (I have written more than a few reviews of the efforts of Robert B. Parker and Nelson DeMille). I like historical fiction at lot. When combined well, the result is usually highly entertaining and educational. For a terrific example, I highly recommend Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis among many others. I also highly recommend David Liss’ most recent effort, The Coffee Trader. The interplay of historical context, a pretty good mystery with a few terrific characters, and
If commerce bores you to tears, this might not be the book for you. Liss has done a masterful job of depicting, explaining, and providing the look, feel, emotions and risk inherent in the development of the Amsterdam bourse — the world’s first commodity exchange market. We see the beginnings of the impact of world trade. We also see confirmation, from the very start, that commodities’ trading was both a gambler’s dream and a processor or fabricator nightmare. We also are shown the first principles commodities trading in that all trading must ultimately be grounded in the goods being traded — despite the best wishes and hard work of the traders.
Second, the historical context is not only the growth of commerce but also religion. Our protagonist, Miguel Lienzo, is a refugee from Portugal, having been expelled with all the rest of the Jewish population in the mid 1600’s. The Jewish Diaspora finds relative tolerance in Amsterdam where it is somewhat unclear which passion rules supreme - religion or commerce. The Jewish community is relatively free and self-governing to a large degree. This creates an environment where the Ma’amad (the Jewish governing council) is all-powerful and is responsible self-policing its “citizens” and enforcing the prohibition on doing business with non-Jews.
Into this great context Liss adds a bit of family friction — Miguel — a trade of some reputation -- has been wiped out in some sugar deals gone bad and is forced to live in his younger brother’s house, which includes the presence of his younger brother’s young wife, Hannah. Hannah is both socially and sexually challenged. Socially challenged because she did not know she was Jewish until her parents were expelled from Portugal. Sexually because she was married to Daniel as a child bride, mostly ignored, and is beginning to find the older brother Miguel quite attractive. Proximity does bring its own rewards.
Now to the heart of the action. A Dutchwomen, Geertruid (who has a great story of her own), approaches Miguel with a proposition to corner the market on a commodity just making its presence known in Europe — coffee. Miguel’s mounting debts, diminished position in the community, and worse, diminished position in his family, provide the impetus for not only his involvement, but also his leadership in the plot. And a plot it is and must be. Miguel’s ex-father in law (Miguel is widowed) is a major force in the Amsterdam market and a major force on the Ma’amad and no friend of Miguel — for whom he blames his daughter’s death. Miguel must connive, manipulate, and manufacture resources, funds, and cover stories for his movements and trades — all the while hiding his involvement with a gentile — and women to boot.
Liss’ use of language is strong and his plot development is really quite good — enough clues to make you really wonder, enough explanation to help you understand. There are enough plot turns and enough surprises to keep it enervating and interesting. Liss does a masterful job of describing the underside of Amsterdam — what happens to the “common” people, the working poor, the unfortunate losers in this new game of commerce. His descriptions and picture of the Jewish community are both enlightening and expected, i.e., “they” are just like everyone else — there are good guys and bad guys, folks who abuse power and those that use it for good.
If I had one criticism of the book it would be the few minor occasions where Liss’ attempt to surprise the reader with a plot twist turned out to be simply not credible. However, these were minor and did not interfere much with the overall quality of this book.