I am feeling badly that I have let my readers down. Having just finished The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss, I looked back into The Reading Journal archives discovering to my enormous embarrassment that the only other novel that I have reviewed by David Liss is The Coffee Trader - (CTRL-click to jump to that review) a highly recommended read. Unfortunately, that means I have neglected to tell you about a number of other terrific books by David Liss that your really should not miss.
Let me start with my most recent - The Whiskey Rebels. Liss's MO is to take a significant historical economic event and make it a major character in his novels. In this novel, the event is the Whiskey Rebellion - a populist insurrection in 1791 precipitated by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's tax on whiskey. With the Articles of Confederation recently succeeded by the US Constitution in 1789, The Federal government took on the state's Revolutionary War debt and a very straightforward way to raise money came immediately to Hamilton's fertile mind (demonstrating the power of the Federal government and a bit of temperance moralizing also played a big role in this tax). Read more about The Whiskey Rebellion on Wikipedia.
Liss introduces us to the western frontier (think western Pennsylvania here) where the recently free indentured servants, the poor, the adventurous, and those ready and willing to prey on the dreams of such people are drawn to the promise of a new life and cheap land. Liss creates a couple of terrific characters in this novel. Ethan Saunders, late of General Washington's espionage group, is living in disgrace (which will be a key element in the story) in Philadelphia. He is engaged by his former fiancee (lost to him by his disgrace) to help look for her missing husband. In the midst of that mission, Saunders gets involved with Hamilton's Treasury Department and the battle over the Bank of the United States - including direct confrontation with the supporters of Thomas Jefferson.
Meanwhile, Joan Maycott marries a War veteran and they are forced by circumstance to seek their fortunes on the frontier. Fleeced by the rapaciousness of the powerful who happen to be Hamiltonians, their subsequent inventive success in the Whiskey Trade both attracts the predators even more and is threatened by the Whiskey Tax -- and Joan sets about seeking redress.
The lives of Saunders and Maycott (as you might guess) become intertwined, and Liss creates an intriguing patriotic mystery story out of the immediate post-Revolutionary War period. Once again, it helps if you are a bit of a history buff - but the history does not overwhelm, it makes it very interesting. Not quite as good as The Coffee Trader or A Conspiracy of Paper, but The Whiskey Rebels is good for a strong recommendation.
A Conspiracy of Paper was actually Liss' first novel (I read The Coffee Trader first), and it is a terrific book, fun to read, inventive characters, and (to me) a fascinating subject. Set in 18th century London, we are introduced to (again, or in this case the beginning of the trend) both a personal mystery and a national mystery. National in scope, London in 1719 was fixated on what came to be known as the South Sea bubble -- a cycle of unfettered speculation on the stock shares (new concept) of the South Seas Company - a monarchy-chartered enterprise to exploit England's dominance in sea-faring and exploration (not to mention colonization and exploitation). Liss leads us through the ins and outs of stock trading, insider trading, and shady brokers (timely, huh?). The personal story is carried by Benjamin Weaver, ex-pugilist champion turned thief-taker and strong-arm man. Weaver is an unusual man for his time - a Jew who is estranged from his family and community, a boxer turned bandit cum Robin Hood. Weaver gets involved in two seemingly unrelated cases -- the first is that he suspects foul play in the unexpected death of his father and the second is a client quite anxious to reclaim some very important papers. His involvement brings him into contact and conflict with Jonathan Wilde -- the king of London's "Thief-takers" -- head of a gang that offers to reclaim property stolen from the owners, when in fact committing the crimes in the first place.
All of this activity gets intertwined - Weaver, his father, the lost papers, and speculation in the South Sea Company, and Weaver's unique relationship to his heritage. Liss introduces us to the top-and-bottom of London society -- the rising rich merchant classes, the Lords and Ladies, and the thieves, whores, and cut-purses. They all converge in incredibly well drawn salons, coffee-houses, brothels, and gin joints. Liss makes this world come alive - and as this novel was an outgrowth of his Ph.D. dissertation, I am assuming the details are correct. Regardless of accuracy, Liss provides an action-packed world and an relatively unforgettable main character. A Conspiracy of Paper was every bit as good as The Coffee Trader.
A Spectacle of Corruption is the sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper and in the way of most sequels, while interesting and entertaining, it is not as good as his two previous (and one subsequent) efforts. in Spectacle, Benjamin Weaver is back, this time accused of murder and thrown into the infamous Newgate prison. With the help of an unknown (to Weaver) accomplish, he manages to escape (in terrific style, I must say) only to find himself hip-deep in the political machinations of the Jacobites who are agitating for the overthrow of the King George I in favor of the recently de-throned James II, a Catholic. The most exciting parts of A Spectacle of Corruption involve Ben Weaver in action - in disguise as a wealthy plantation owner, in courting a key adversary's sister, or as muscle in the head-bashing that accompanies the political rivalries. Less successful is Liss' attempts to explain the details of the Whig/Tory rivalries and the abundance of deux-ex-machina situations and coincidences that appear just a bit too contrived....however, once through the political details and suspending disbelief on the other stuff, Liss provides a pretty good action novel that is, once again, rich in details about a life long past. Still worth the effort and it is fun following Benjamin Weaver wrestle with both his heritage and his love life.