By Frank Tallis
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 9, 2009
THE DEVIL'S COMPANY
By David Liss
Random House. 369 pp. $25
"The Devil's Company," a treat for lovers of historical fiction, sees the return of Benjamin Weaver in his third exciting romp through the varied and sometimes surreal landscape of 18th-century London. Weaver is an endearing protagonist, a former pugilist and investigator for hire whom we first met in David Liss's "A Conspiracy of Paper" (1999). His underlying humanity saves him from the macho posturing that ultimately undermines the moral authority of most action-adventure heroes. And he is a Jew, which imbues him with the romance of an outsider and permits Liss to show us how anti-Semitism was expressed in the relatively unfamiliar context of Hanoverian England.
The story begins simply enough, when Weaver is engaged by the enigmatic Jerome Cobb to be his agent in a card game to humiliate an old adversary. Although the game is rigged, things do not go as planned, and Weaver finds himself owing Cobb a large sum of money. Weaver is forced to work as Cobb's spy and break into the fortresslike headquarters of the British East India Company to steal documents.
From this point, a plot of devilish complexity begins to unfold. Weaver is never properly informed of Cobb's ultimate purpose, and one of the pleasures of this book is a deepening sense of mystery combined with a growing awareness that the stakes are very high indeed. At the heart of events is the disappearance of a handsome but ingenious bigamist whose lost notebooks contain plans for a machine that -- if constructed -- will injure the joint interests of the East India Company and the British government. Along the way, the narrative keeps us fully engaged with phaeton and boat chases, explosions, seductions and a colorful visit to a brothel for homosexual cross-dressers.
Liss's 18th-century London is one that James Bond would have felt at home in. The action is fast and full of surprises -- so many, in fact, that the suspension of disbelief is sometimes sustained by only a thread. But the narrative momentum inclines us to be indulgent -- and rightly so, because there is much to enjoy. These characters are particularly well drawn, with even the minor players given care and attention.
Another virtue of "The Devil's Company" is its timely subtext, which explores the beginnings of corporate culture and globalization. Liss cleverly refers to the works of Charles Davenant and Josiah Child and their theory of free trade that "benefits all nations" -- a phrase that is echoed in the debate still raging. You'll also recognize a number of other issues that are as relevant today as they were in the 18th century. Does the promise of sharing the proceeds of economic growth justify an interim period of social inequality? At what point does international trade become a form of mercantile conquest? And should governments have a relaxed attitude toward large corporations that increase the nation's prosperity?
Liss demonstrates -- with a light touch -- that the political, economic and social problems we worry about now have a venerable provenance. Moreover, the solutions chosen by those in power -- past and present -- usually favor pragmatism over justice. "Politics," says one of Liss's characters, "cannot always be about what is moral and right and good for all men and for all time. It must be about what is expedient now, and what is the lesser evil."
Historical fiction is mostly smoke and mirrors. Modern writers really don't know what it was like to live in the past -- no matter how much research they do -- so the success of the enterprise depends largely on creating a convincing illusion. In this respect, the novelist's principal tool is language, which must sound authentic but never drag or test the reader's patience. Liss rises to this challenge with great skill in this accomplished, atmospheric and thoughtful novel.
Tallis is the author of the Liebermann Papers, a series of psychoanalytic detective thrillers set in Freud's Vienna.