(Jump down to read a review of The Coffee Trader)
"A Spectacle of Corruption"
(Reviewed by Sebastian Fernandez JAN 16, 2005)
"Oh, bother it! I'll not be mutilated on his behalf. I hardly bear that much love for the man, and I curse that I ever involved myself in this. But there is a general election upon us, and no man can afford to remain neutral"
In his previous two novels David Liss dealt with themes revolving around finance in a historical setting. A Conspiracy of Paper tells the story of Ben Weaver and his search for his father's murderer. Ben soon finds that the reason behind the crime is connected to a scam in the financial markets. But Weaver's real family name is Lienzo, and in The Coffee Trader Liss goes back in time to narrate the story of Miguel Lienzo, one of Ben's predecessors who amassed his fortune through the trade of futures in the Dutch market.
In this novel we find again the character of Ben Weaver, who is now telling us about his adventures connected to the death of Walter Yate. And in this case, the focus of the novel changes compared to previous works, moving from a financial setting to a political one. Ben is innocent in the death of Walter Yate, but finds himself going to trial anyway. It is almost funny that someone who killed others in the course of his previous business and having escaped the consequences unscathed, finds himself in the "hot seat" when he truly is innocent.
Those that have read the previous book featuring Weaver will surely remember Jonathan Wild, one of the most colorful and intriguing characters in that novel. Wild is a notorious criminal and a sort of "godfather" who has people stealing for him and then he charges the owners of the goods for their return. Since Ben is an honest thieftaker, meaning he goes after the thieves instead of committing the robberies himself, there is no love lost between him and Wild. That is why when Wild is called as a witness in Weaver's trial, we are expecting to see a clear case of perjury and Ben hanging as a result. But beware, Liss likes to surprise his readers!
The trial presents some very interesting aspects, dealing with witnesses that lie and recant on the spot, a judge that is focused on seeing Ben convicted and a jury that allows itself to be badgered into a verdict. This is how Ben ends up on death row and his only way out is to escape prison after a lovely lady that he has never seen in his life provides him the means to do so. Now, he is determined to find the real culprit and to clear his name. In order to achieve that, he has to embark on a very dangerous adventure that will situate him against some clever adversaries that know how to play the game of politics.
There are two aspects that have been present throughout all three books. One of them is showing how unfair the treatment of Jews has been in the different time periods and places selected as settings for the stories. In this case, in the eighteenth century in England, we find evidence of such treatment on various occasions. The most blatant one is during sentencing, when the judge tells Ben: "I can see no reason for leniency, not when there are so many Jews in this city." The other aspect is the importance of family, which of course is not disconnected from the first one at all, since the Jewish religion pays the utmost attention to family. In the present novel, we find Ben suffering over Miriam's decision to reject his marriage proposal and marry another man instead. Miriam is the widow of Ben's cousin, and not only did she marry a Tory candidate, but she had to convert to the Protestant religion in order to do so. As a result, she is not allowed to communicate with Ben anymore.
This novel has a good share of interesting characters, as is evidenced by some of the examples mentioned. It also has a well-developed plot with a very detailed and realistic description of the setting in which the story unravels. This allows the reader to get a very good idea about how life was at the time and also to understand the motivation behind the different political parties. What makes this book even more remarkable is the fact that the talents displayed by Liss do not stop there, since the author shows a clear knack for suspense and mystery. All these points make this novel very hard to ignore.
- Amazon readers rating: from 41 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from A Spectacle of Corruption at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
"The Coffee Trader"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAY 15, 2003)
At such a dismal time, Miguel is offered an attractive proposition. Gertrude Damhuis, an attractive and prosperous widow, offers Miguel the chance to make it big in "coffee fruit." "This coffee isn't like wine or beer," she tells him, "which we drink to make merry or because it quenches thirst or even because it is delightful. This will only make you thirstier, it will never make you merry, and the taste, let us be honest, may be curious but never pleasing. Coffee is something something far more important. Coffee is the drink of commerce." Soon Miguel is hooked and surreptitiously sets about making plans to make it big in coffee. He must make secret dealings with many. For one, Parido cannot get wind of his plans otherwise he would be sure to throw a spanner in the works. Second, it is against Ma'amad laws to conduct business with gentiles so Miguel's associations with the Dutch widow must be held under cover.
As he proceeds, Miguel finds he is unsure as to everyone's motives. When such huge monies are at stake, is a friend actually one or a foe? The players are many-his brother, Daniel, Daniel's pregnant wife, Hannah, who provides the primary love interest of the novel, the excommunicated usurer, Alferonda, who also has an enmity against Parido, and the buyer Isaiah Nunes who promises Miguel delivery of coffee fruit at a predetermined time, are but some of the characters that people the pages of the novel. As with most business dealings, there are many ups and downs and surprises at every turn. Miguel has to constantly watch his back and the wily manipulations of many on the Exchange floors are enough to keep one turning the pages wondering what will happen next. Will Miguel finally make it big with coffee or will Parido discover his dealings and outwit him at his own game? In The Coffee Trader, Liss has crafted a story that will keep many readers engaged.
The workings of a trade where everybody's motives are suspect and where fortunes can be made or broken overnight have many parallels, of course, to modern day Wall Street. Liss has been asked about the Amsterdam Exchange and its uncanny resemblance to the modern day business world. Money, greed and power, after all, have been around for a while. The drawback of The Coffee Trader is that Liss does not do enough to distance his book from our present. The setting may be Amsterdam in 1659 but there is not enough description of place and time to pin it down. In the end, much of The Coffee Trader reads like modern day Wall Street being played out in Amsterdam. There is also too much business talk that often calls for rereading: "It's very simple," says Miguel trying unsuccessfully to reassure the reader, "If need be, I'll cover my own losses as the price drops and therefore simultaneously acquire the very goods I will promise to sell, only I'll buy when the price dips below the price at which I have promised to sell, so I might profit on the sales while lowering the value." You'll need some coffee to parse that one.
In the end, Liss does deliver a satisfying romp through the evil machinations of the business world. With a strong storyline, The Coffee Trader is a brisk read. At its heart is the message that ruthless business deals have been around forever and that morality and money rarely work well together. In current post-Enron times, that message is of course, very familiar, yet also vaguely unsettling.
- Amazon readers rating: from 129 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Coffee Trader at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Benjamin Weaver thrillers:
Other Historical novels:
- The Coffee Trader (2003)
- The Ethical Assassin (2006)
- The Whiskey Rebels (2008)
- The Twelfth Enchantment (2011)
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- The official website for David Liss
- Reading Group Guide for A Conspiracy of Paper
- The New York Times review of A Conspiracy of Paper
- The New York Times reveiw of The Whiskey Rebels
- MostlyFiction.com review for The Devil's Company
- MostlyFiction.com review for The Twelfth Enchantment
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About the Author:
David Liss was born in 1966 and grew up in south Florida. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the department of English at Columbia University, where he is completing his dissertation on how the mid-eighteenth-century novel reflects and shapes the emergence of the modern idea of personal finance. He has given numerous conference papers on his research and has also published on Henry James. He has received several awards for his work, including the Columbia President's Fellowship, an A. W. Mellon Research Fellowship, and the Whiting Dissertation Fellowship. He holds an M.A. degree from Georgia State University and a B.S. degree from Syracuse University. Liss lives in New York City with his wife.