Page Turners

A Conspiracy of Paper and the Historical Detective



As someone who loves to read, and who is always on the hunt for some new and interesting book to check out, I often find myself relying on any number of potential sources. I take recommendations, check out best-sellers, and sometimes even seek out authors who I’m familiar with for other reasons. Take David Liss, a fairly accomplished writer of historical fiction who I learned about because he wrote a fairly forgotten miniseries at Marvel Comics. In 2011 I went into my now defunct local comic book shop and saw a new issue sitting on the shelves for a strange miniseries called Mystery Men. It featured a group of brand-new superheros who supposedly operated in New York during the Great Depression, before any of the canonical superheroes of the Marvel Universe. And, I loved it. It was a book that I found myself getting extremely into, I had a great time with it, and then was quite bummed to see nothing ever come from it. Just a handful of issues that told a fairly self-contained story, never to really be brought up again. But, it was a book that I’ve thought about quite a bit in the ensuing eight years, and I found myself researching it recently, just confirming to myself that no sequel was ever made, upon which I learned that the writer of the series was primarily known for his prose. And, what’s more, some pretty well-received historical fiction, a genre that I am a huge sucker for. So, I decided to pick up one of Liss’s books, starting with his first novel, and was pleasantly surprised that it was exactly my kind of story. Not really anything too similar to Mystery Men, but a real find nonetheless.

A Conspiracy of Paper is set in the early 18th century in London, and follows the exploits of  man named Benjamin Weaver. Weaver comes from a fairly prominent Jewish family who have built a good life working the burgeoning stock market, but has become estranged from his family after he pursued a life as a boxer. Weaver had quite a bit of success as a pugilist, but an accident physically forced him out of that life, and he ended up finding a new way of life as a “thief-taker” a profession where Weaver took on tasks that sophisticated society deemed beneath itself, collecting debts, finding lost people, and returning stolen items. That’s right, Benjamin Weaver is an old-timey private eye. He takes on a variety of jobs, including retrieving some stolen documents for a very private member of the aristocracy named Sir Owen, generally keeping things professional, and ignoring any personal connections beyond his friend Elias, a womanizing physician. But, his life is changed when he’s approached by a man named Balfour who has an interesting proposal for him. Both Balfour and Weaver’s fathers have recently died, somewhat abruptly, and Balfour thinks that their deaths may be both connected, and premeditated.

This idea puts Weaver down a path that sends him careening around the various societies of London, searching for the truth. He begins reintegrating himself in his family, specifically his uncle, in order to find out more about his father, in the process falling in love with his late-cousin’s widow who lives there. He dives into the deep and ugly world of London crime, specifically the orbit of real-life crimelord Jonathan Wild. And, eventually, Weaver starts to find himself continually drawn to the South Sea Company, a massive corporation that was dominating London’s stock exchange at the time, to the point that Weaver’s father specifically began decrying its shady business dealings. And, that finally shows Weaver what is actually happening. A massive conspiracy with fictitious stock brokers moving around vast amounts of fictitious money through a failing company, a conspiracy built completely on paper, that is keeping the London economy afloat, and eliminating anyone who dares to bring their crimes to light. All Weaver has to do is stay alive.

Like I said, going into this book I really didn’t no what to expect, other than a historical fiction book. So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when it slowly began dawning on me that Weaver was some early form of a private eye. It’s an incredibly fun novel, which pulls quite a bit from actual history, a well-researched story that transports you instantly back to the world of London in the 1700’s, while telling a story that shockingly is rather timeless. I’ve made it quite clear on this site that I love stories about private eyes, and I really wasn’t expecting to find an incredibly functional harboiled detective story from this historical fiction book. But, I loved it. It was a blend of history and detection, all while serving as a lovely reminder that evil corporations have always existed, and have set up insane webs of lies and fraud that they would kill to protect. We just need a heroic and somewhat stubborn protagonist to insert himself into that world of lies, sliding around the various social structures of their culture, finding a deep and ingrained world of crime.


A Conspiracy of Paper was written by David Liss, 2000.

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