David Liss

A Conspiracy of Paper

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A Conspiracy of Paper Summary

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A Conspiracy of Paper is a 2000 historical thriller by American novelist David Liss. Set in eighteenth-century London, the novel follows Jewish thief-taker Benjamin Weaver as he investigates the fraudulence of the South Sea Company, whose forged stock certificates lead to the world’s first stock-market crash, the “South Sea Bubble” of 1720. The novel explores the Company’s “conspiracy of paper” and the Jewish community of 1700s London as Weaver reconnects with his roots. A Conspiracy of Paper won the 2001 Macavity Award for Best Mystery Debut and the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Debut Novel.

Having made his living as a prizefighter, Benjamin Weaver was forced into early retirement by a badly broken leg. Since then, he has made his career in London’s private law-enforcement industry. Britain has yet to develop a public police force, so wealthy Londoners rely on hired strongmen to protect their property, collect debts, retrieve stolen goods, and punish criminals. Weaver has set himself up “as protector, guardian, bailiff, constable-for-hire, and thieftaker.”

In particular, Weaver has a talent for the lucrative trade of thief-taking. A cross between a bounty hunter and a private eye, Weaver scours the dank streets of London to track down thieves who have robbed the wrong pocket.

Weaver is Jewish—we learn that he fought as “The Lion of Judah”—and although he does not practice the religion, he is surprised to find himself hired by William Balfour, a virulently anti-Semitic man. Balfour wants Weaver to find the killer of Balfour’s father, who is generally believed to have committed “self-murder.” He has selected Weaver for the job because Balfour’s father was a client of Weaver’s estranged father Samuel Lienzo (“Weaver” is a pseudonym). Lienzo was a “stockjobber,” a dealer in stocks, who was killed in the road by a drunken coach driver. However, Balfour believes that Lienzo’s death was no more an accident than his own father’s death was a suicide. He wants Weaver to delve into the community of Jewish stockjobbers and find out why someone wanted Lienzo and Balfour Senior dead.

Weaver has long been estranged from his father’s family and from the Jewish community, who exist in a precarious position, forced to take up unpopular professions and always liable to be scapegoated in times of trouble. However, in order to investigate the deaths of his father and Balfour’s, Weaver visits his uncle Miguel.

In Miguel’s house, he steps back into the world of Jewish London. Miguel welcomes him home and introduces him to his cousin’s widow, the gorgeous Miriam. With Miguel and Miriam, Weaver begins to reconnect with his community and religious traditions, as well as his family’s struggle as permanent outsiders to get ahead. As Miguel re-introduces his nephew to ancient Jewish traditions, he reveals that he fears for the future of England’s Jews.

Miguel also serves as Weaver’s guide to the world of stockjobbing. The semi-licit trade takes place in the gaming houses and bordellos of “Change Alley.” The best stockjobbers rely on bluff and double bluff, manipulation, and deceit.

Stockjobbing depends upon “the new finance.” The invention of stock certificates and banknotes means, as Miguel explains, “money in England is being replaced with the promise of money.”

As Weaver searches for a reason why someone might have murdered his father, he comes across an unpublished pamphlet, written by Lienzo, about the South Sea Company. The pamphlet traces a network of interlocking conspiracies by which the Company has manufactured a vast fortune from nothing.

Weaver learns that the Company was initially established in 1711 to manage the trade routes between Britain and Latin America. The Company immediately began issuing stock on the promise of future prosperity. When the Spanish pushed the Company out of the American market, the Company decided to continue offering stock. By the time of Weaver’s investigation, the Company has issued so much stock that it has the resources to challenge the Bank of England for dominance of the country’s fledgling financial markets. The Company has offered to take on the national debt—in exchange for being allowed to issue more stock. As the holder of the national debt, the Company would wrest from the Bank the role of brokering the government’s loans.

At the time of his death, Weaver’s father had discovered a smoking gun: forged South Sea Company stock certificates. However, the conspiracy is more complicated than it seems. Like the financial system in general, the South Sea stocks retain their value so long as no one knows that in reality, their value is based on nothing. The forged certificates do no harm unless their existence becomes widely known.

Unlike his father, Weaver has no desire to collapse the system by revealing its fraudulent underpinnings, but because he knows the Company’s secrets, he becomes a target in his turn. Soon, Weaver does not know whom he can trust: “I found myself . . . in a labyrinth in which I could not see what lay ahead or even behind. I only knew where I was—and I was trapped.”

As Weaver fights to survive, he encounters many historical characters of the era, including Jonathan Wild, the “thief-taker general” who was also (as the author observes in his historical end-note) the “first modern crime lord.”

Weaver plays an almost accidental role in the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, and order is partially restored. Weaver returns to his family’s Jewish neighborhood and gradually resumes his religious identity, attending synagogue and keeping kosher. An endnote explains that this trajectory mirrors the author’s own development from secular to observant Jew.