Sunday, June 27, 2010

David Liss takes on the British East India Trading Company in his latest tale of the eighteenth century.

I reviewed David Liss’s novel The Conspiracy of Paper some time ago in my Orange County Register Blog. He has written a few more titles in this series, but I have missed them somehow. But now that I’ve read his latest installment, I will certainly go back and fill in the blanks.

The Devil’s Company

“Company” in the title of David Liss’s latest Benjamin Weaver tale is used in two senses. It is company in the sense of “the company one keeps,” and in this novel, The Devil’s Company (381 pages, Ballentine Books, $15), that sense of the term applies directly to Benjamin and his friends and associates. But it also coveys a company in the sense of a “joint stock company,” the early eighteenth-century forebears to the multi-national corporation. Mutli-national does give something of the wrong impression, however, since the British East India Company was first and foremost a British concern and its main arm for the establishment of an empire around the globe.

In 1722, when this novel is set, these aspirations were only just being articulated publicly. At the same time, there was unrest, on the part of local wool merchants and silk weavers, who felt that the imported fabric, which was so cheaply and beautifully produced in India, was doing them out of their livelihoods. Liss’s novel is about this issue, and he throws his pugilistic hero into the middle of this very muddle.

Benjamin is asked to infiltrate the East India Company in order to discover what happened to a certain individual called Absolom Pepper. Benjamin has no interest in taking on the company; but the man who hires him to do so, Jerome Cobb, seems little less than a cultivated gangster. He threatens those closest to Benjamin with imprisonment for debt—a debt he has assumed in order to control matters in this way—and Benjamin sees no alternative but to comply.

This gives the novelist, David Liss, the opportunity to tell us about the inner workings of the East India Company. When Benjamin is thrown into the thick of things, he very quickly realizes what a corrupt organization it is. Half of what they do seems questionably legal, and the other half is clearly outside the law. But another thing he discovers, as he trips over other spies in his midst, is that the British government is willing to turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of the company because those in government realize what an important key it is to their aspirations of international expansion.

There is a range of colorful characters in this novel; all the businessmen, the workers, and the spies are richly drawn. The evocative Celia Glade, who is as adept at disguises as Benjamin himself, proves to be an accomplished adversary - or is she is an ally? Benjamin has a difficult time making that distinction.

Benjamin is Jewish, of Portuguese origin, and this gives Liss the opportunity to talk a lot about anti-Semitism in early eighteenth-century Europe. He also takes on the men known as mollies, who frequent a tavern known as Mother Clap’s. He sends Benjamin in search of a witness at the exact moment when the so-called Molly House was raided by the authorities, and it makes it clear that the men who were apprehended during that raid were in serious trouble, both in prison and before the magistrates.

Liss does a wonderful job of evoking the age, and he tells a story that is as instructive as it is entertaining. As I say, I enjoyed this novel enough to go back and read about Benjamin’s earlier adventures.

David Liss

Pick up a copy at Amazon, Powell's or Vroman's.

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