Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Conspiracy of Paper - David Liss

I have just finished a fascinating historical mystery by David Liss.

I first read Mr. Liss' entertaining The Coffee Trader while unemployed. It was a financial thriller that I borrowed from my mother. While roaming through Barnes and Noble, I happened upon The Coffee Trader once again and, next to it, A Conspiracy of Paper.

I enjoyed The Coffee Trader, not just because it was entertainingly written, with eloquent descriptions and an intriguing setting - 17th century Netherlands (I think that's the right century, it's been a while) - but because it was so gosh darned informative.

Yes, gosh darned.

I've read a couple of finance books that sought to educate me about the markets, and I was always a little hazy on the subject of futures. The Coffee Trader cleared that all up, as the futures trade (again, I might be remembering fuzzily) originated in the Netherlands in the 17th century. As you might expect, The Coffee Trader deals with trading futures in, of all things, coffee.

So I snapped up A Conspiracy of Paper because 1) it dealt with the early days of the stock market in London (early 18th century), in particular the South Sea Company and the so-called South Sea Bubble; and 2) the main character sounded fascinating: a pugilist (boxer) turned bounty hunter in the days before London had a police force. Technically, he is described as a thief-taker, because he hunts down thieves and recovers stolen goods for a percentage of the booty's value, but he also occasionally beat people into a pulp for a fee.

It was interesting, reading the book and finding out more about the South Sea Company, on which Mr. Liss wrote a dissertation in graduate school. His main character, Benjamin Weaver aka Lienzo, was based on a real life character by the name of Daniel Mendoza, a Portuguese Jew who earned renown and society's respect in the boxing ring in a time when foreign-born Jews were forbidden from owning property in England.

The book deals not only with the stock markets at the time - a highly informal affair - but also with the religious prejudices of society towards Jews and Dissenters (non-Church-of-Englanders), the societal restrictions of women, and the corruption that pervaded the judiciary and government during that time.

The book is not exactly a light read, but it was fascinating. Occasionally, I had to set it down to digest what I had read before I could take another bite, but it was well worth it. Mr. Liss has another book, I believe featuring the same Benjamin Weaver character, and I'm dying to go buy it to see what else he can teach me about the financial market's history. That, and I have a weakness for half-dressed men beating the stuffing out of each other. Alas, other preoccupations must come first.

What's a girl to do? So many books, so little time...

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