The trouble with me is that I’m an arrogant reader. Particularly when I’m reading a mystery. I think that because I’m paying attention I’ll sort out the mystery and so this post might otherwise be titled “chagrin.” Chagrin because I thought I’d solved the mystery in David Liss’s brilliantly enjoyable *A Conspiracy of Paper* : a mystery set in London in the 1710s as the stock market is developing and the first (ever!) stock market crash takes place. Around page 300 (of a rough 450) I’d decided that I had it all worked out and so I resolved to make it through to the end to have my conclusion validated by the book. ONLY TO BE WRONG. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, realizing I’d misread the signs. Though our protagonist Benjamin Weaver – a former boxer, turned private detective/thug – isn’t entirely sure by the end of the book that the murderer/conspirator/mastermind really is who he thinks he is. So! Maybe I’m right after all?
And this is the delight of the well wrought mystery. The unravelling of threads reveals not a single person behind the curtain, but rather a set of societal conditions that allowed such crimes to take place that anyone (perhaps) could have been the perpetrator given the right opportunity. That is to say, one person pulled the trigger, but a hundred could have. Moreover Liss’s novel is brilliant for showing how easy it might be for anyone of the characters to have slipped into pulling the trigger, that we are all but a hairs breath – or an opportunity – away from being thieves and killers. That with proper motivation and opportunity we’d all easily fill the role. That the line between virtue and crime is as easily crossed as it is misapprehended.
So the book gives you a host of suspicious characters – lovers, family, friends and supposed enemies – and has each of them vacillate between trustworthy and unreliability. Our protagonist himself, towards the end of the novel, falls under the reader’s suspicion in a masterful play of the unreliable narrator. The story is, after all a first person memoir recounted at many years distance, and this reader couldn’t help but wonder if the usual shades of self-aggrandizing truth that ought to be suspected in a first person narrative weren’t being underdrawn in suspicious ways.
The one way I wasn’t arrogant in this reading is that I am entirely ignorant of all things stock market, and moreover intimidated by economics, investments, stocks, etc. In another brilliant move Liss anticipates this (potential) discomfort with the stock market among his readers and so positions his protagonist as similarly ignorant and so a suitable surrogate to ask the obvious and naive questions. Through Weaver we explore the history of the stock market without the burden of overly technical or alienating facts or details, instead we get repeated explanations of the significance of such and such an event or practice through his Uncle or best friend. This gentle introduction to the history makes it both enjoyable and accessible, to the extent that I think I have a decent grasp of not only the emergence of the stock market, but a confidence enough to translate the historical circumstances to the present to ask questions about the abstraction of currency: talk to me about Bitcoin! I have thoughts now. Maybe.
Oh and I should say, too, that the narrative is written – as you’d expect – in the (supposed) diction and phrasing of eighteenth century London. So I learned some new words and had to catch myself as I started inserting ‘countenance’ into everyday conversation: always a joy.
All this to say an entirely enjoyable read – captivating mystery, thoughtful pacing and introduction of historical details and compelling (enough) characters.