Monday, April 22, 2013


I'm a big fan of Benjamin Weaver, the Jewish prize-figher turned "thief taker," who is the hero of David Liss's The Devil's Company, the third in the series of crime novels set in 18th century London.  (The other two are The Whiskey Rebels and A Conspiracy of Paper.)  Liss writes as Weaver, in the first person, in a pitch-perfect and convincing blend of contemporaneous slang and syntax with readable modern English.  The author has a remarkable ability to evoke the stinking, muddy streets of a pre-sanitary city, along with the drawing rooms and bedrooms of both elegant mansions and slum dwellings, and the dreary business offices peopled by slavish clerks and scheming bosses.  It's a world teeming with the human race, with all its foibles and prejudices as well as its occasional nobility and generosity of spirit.

Weaver is a marvelous character.  Honest to a fault, he's perfectly willing to cut corners and take risks in what he perceives to be the pursuit of justice.  Loyal to his friends, he's the most implacable of enemies.  He sides with the poor and the downtrodden--and there are many of those, in the metropolis--against the unscrupulous rich and the privileged upper classes.  At once tender and tough, he will go to any lengths to right the wrongs that he unearths.  His partners-in-crime-solving--and also, often enough, in crime--are a colorful bunch of characters, as, indeed, are the villains he exposes.

But Liss is after more than the historical context.  The East India Company--the "devil's" company--is a stand-in for the rapacious corporations that threaten to dominate today's world.  The interplay between commerce and politics is at the center of the book's complex and engrossing intrigues.  In his metaphors for today's society, Liss takes the view of a liberal of the realist persuasion.  "Companies," he writes on the one hand, in the words of one of his characters, "concern themselves only with how much money they can make.  Governments at least look after the well-being of all--the poor, the unfortunate, and even the laborers, whose work must be cultivated, not exploited."  But later, another character adds this relativist wisdom: "Politics cannot always be about what is moral and right and good for all men and all time.  It must be about what is expedient now, and what is the lesser evil."

There's much other meat on the bone of plot in this novel, including much social observation about class and prejudice which is unfortunately as true today as the author makes it sound in the eighteenth century.  Above all, there's the spirit of adventure, the not-knowing what we're going to find around the next dark corner, the craftily handled suspense.  And the humor, sometimes subtle, sometimes slapstick, sometimes laugh-out-loud.  Action?  Sure, if you fancy a phaeton chase through the streets of London, as fast-paced and reckless as a roman chariot race--or the conventional chase scene in any contemporary movie.  Oh, and fisticuffs, for sure...  The book is a barrel of intelligent, good-humored fun.

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