Quite apart from the Olympic Games, which I have been watching on television, I seem to be finding myself in London a good deal this summer. A few days ago I finished---and wrote about--Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, a historical novel set in 17th century London. Just yesterday, I finished A Spectacle of Corruption, by David Liss, a fine romp through the back alleys and drawing rooms of 18th century London, in the reign of George I. And no sooner done with that, I happened to pick up from my pile of books The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester--and immediately found myself in the darkest corner of 19th century, Victorian London.
More of this last one later, when I've had the chance to read it. Meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure offered by David Liss. I had previously read A Conspiracy of Paper, in which the same hero, Benjamin Weaver, finds himself embroiled in murder and mayhem in the context of the infamous bursting of the South Sea Bubble. Weaver is the ultimate outsider--a prize-fighter, a Jew, a commoner, and a man of conscience and a rough sense of justice--in a society not unlike our own, riddled with greed, ambition, social climbing, and ruthless unconcern for the rest of humanity. He's tough, not unwilling to bend the law when dealing with people willing to exploit it, yet possessed of an essentially generous heart and tender sensibility. A fine character, filled, like most of us, with contradictions.
This Spectacle of Corruption finds our hero narrowly escaping the hangman's noose for a murder he did not commit, breaking out of jail, and masquerading as a "gentleman" in his pursuit of justice in the face of rampant skullduggery on all sides. It's election time: the Whigs are battling the Tories. Behind the scenes, the Jacobites are skulking in hopes of restoring the Pretender, the would-be King James III, to the throne, and ousting the German usurper, George. There are few niceties in the election process. With the possible exception of murder, street riots, extortion, and the purchase of votes, there is something eerily familiar about the way in which these politicians use their lies and false promises to trade on the ignorance and self-interest of voters. Some things, it seems, change little over the centuries.
Liss handles all this with great zest and humor. The first person narrative, in what passes convincingly for 18th century speech, moves along with all engrossing haste and takes us on a series of often hair-raising adventures. But, as with "Wolf Hall", it is the detail that engages: the somewhat tawdry splendor of the ballrooms and the drawing rooms of the rich, the squalor of the foul-smelling, rat-infested dwellings of the less fortunate, the stink of beer and gin in rowdy taverns, the back streets and alleys whose mud is generously mixed with human waste--these are the settings through which Weaver moves in his pitiless pursuit of the evil-doers who would gladly see him hanged. Woe betide those who cross him, though. This unbowed, irrepressible member of "the Jewish nation"--so universally scorned in my home country at that time--proves one of the few incorruptible in A Spectacle of Corruption. If you haven't yet encountered him, I can promise you a pleasure in making his acquaintance.