"The Devil's Company" by David Liss

Fiction


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Benjamin Weaver, an 18th-century Sam Spade, is the narrator of this story of crime and conspiracy among the merchant capitalists of London.

The time and the subject of this novel are similar to David Liss' first novel, "A Conspiracy of Paper," an Edgar-Award winner.

Weaver, who gained fame as a "thief taker" (i.e. private investigator) in "Conspiracy," is forced, by fraud and threats to his relatives and friends, to undertake a job for one of the merchants in the East India Co. He must find and steal some valuable papers.

As he tells the story 30 years later, Weaver re-creates the bewildering complexity of his situation, which turns out, not surprisingly, to involve a world-changing event only revealed in the last few pages of this story. It's one, of course, that's been entirely lost to history.


"THE DEVIL'S COMPANY"
By David Liss
Random House. ($25)

What and where are these papers? Why are they valuable? What has happened to the man who drafted them? And why are so many people so interested?

Liss frames Weaver's trials and adventures in a large historical context -- the transformation of the English economy. Silk weavers and wool merchants are attempting to continue their dominance of the cloth-making and clothing markets by blocking sales of cotton prints imported by the East India Co.

The king has his interests, and traders and mercantilists as well as artisans, have dogs in this fight. There are also struggles within the East India Co. itself. Spies and thugs abound.

Weaver uncovers Celia Glade, a woman, both beautiful and talented, who is working undercover. Is she working for the French or for the English king? And can Weaver trust her obvious romantic interest in him?

If all this sounds a bit much, perhaps it is because Liss is having fun with the conventions of the crime novel, projecting noir characters and plotting cliches onto an 18th-century setting. He steals a famous Sherlock Holmes' ploy from "A Scandal in Bohemia." (But that's OK. Doyle stole from Poe big time!)

And at times he mimics Agatha Christie as well as historical romances. Still, the larger historical picture, the bare-knuckled struggle of groups and individuals for wealth and economic power, is serious history as it's often not taught in schools.

But it's hard to tell how serious Liss is. His efforts at writing period dialogue are, at best, stiff and sometimes unintentionally laughable. Here's a comment from one conversation: "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny, Weaver. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness."

Is this post-modern pastiche or is Liss just tone deaf? One hopes, very much against hope, that Liss' tongue is having a rendezvous with his cheek.


Michael Helfand teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh.


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