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18th Century Boxer-Sleuth Goes Mano-a-Mano With Murder

A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, A Novel, by David Liss, Random House $25, 442 pages

March 02, 2000|CARA MIA DIMASSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a time, long ago, when "money . . . [was] being replaced with the promise of money." It was a time before AOL-Time Warner, Alan Greenspan and a Palm Pilot IPO, "an era of opulence and excess and wealth." "A Conspiracy of Paper," David Liss' debut novel, is set in London in the prosperous and heady years of the early 18th century, but comparisons to our own golden age are inevitable.

"Conspiracy" is a fictional memoir told by Benjamin Weaver, one of Britain's most celebrated pugilists, who became a private investigator after injuries felled him and a life of crime failed to hold interest. He is a new breed of old-fashioned detective, a combination of Philip Marlowe--subject to self-criticism--and Sherlock Holmes. Elias Gordon is his trusted sidekick, a surgeon who yearns to be a writer and pushes Weaver to think like a philosopher.

"It"--the case at hand--"should have been a simple matter," Weaver informs us--which, of course, heralds the confusion and intrigue to follow. A stranger arrives in the parlor of Weaver's rented room, asking the pugilist to investigate the mysterious death of Samuel Lienzo, Weaver's own estranged, "stock-jobber" father. To solve the murder, Weaver must reenter the Jewish community he had forsaken 10 years before to become the boxer known as "The Lion of Judah."

Liss, who began this novel as part of his dissertation at Columbia University, has re-created a London, circa 1719, that rings true--from the weave of men's wigs to the reading material at a coffeehouse in the midst of London's mostly Jewish Stock Exchange. That year, the South Sea Co. was poised to assume three-fifths of the British national debt, thus supplanting the Bank of England as the nation's economic cornerstone.

Already, the glazed look of greed had begun to show on the faces of its august investors. "There was something about the way people scurried through the lobby, the anxious, suspicious hurry in their walk, that made the South Sea House little more than an adjunct of Jonathan's Coffeehouse--that is, an extension of the Royal Exchange itself--and the men who conducted business there simply another order of stock-jobber. . . . [T]his was certainly one of the great breeding grounds of corruption in the Kingdom."

"Our very enemy is constructed of paper," Gordon warns, and Weaver becomes tangled in a powerful web of financial and political intrigue as he uncovers a "conspiracy of paper" in which the South Sea Co., the Bank of England and the 'Change all hold stake. Weaver solves the mystery of his father's death, but not before he has stooped to the moral low ground of his enemies.

The prosperity of the day did not last. Investors lost confidence in overseas investments, and in January 1720, the so-called South Sea bubble collapsed, the first stock-market crash in the English-speaking world. Britain's chancellor of the Exchequer, John Aislabie, went to the Tower on charges of fraud in connection with the South Sea Co.'s debt assumption. A hundred years later, in his mock epic poem "Don Juan," Lord Byron would satirize the fascination with paper stocks and bonds that persists even today, as we monitor the markets' movement on 24-hour television feeds. "O Gold!" he wrote of the precious metal that had already been usurped, "I still prefer thee unto paper,/Which makes bank credit like a bark of vapour." "A Conspiracy of Paper" is a compelling look--through the eyes of an exciting new detective--at a world that evaporated long ago and will, perhaps, again soon.

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