In Benjamin Weaver, David Liss has created one of historical fiction’s most compelling action heroes. Weaver, the 18th-century London “thief taker” who first appeared in Liss’s “A Conspiracy of Paper” (2000), is a Jewish ex-boxer who mixes brawn and guile in rich plots involving global commerce and labyrinthine conspiracies. Through him, Liss explores such pertinent issues as political corruption, financial panics and anti-Semitism.
In Liss’s new novel, “The Day of Atonement,” we briefly encounter Weaver more than 20 years since his last outing in “The Devil’s Company.” It is 1745, and Weaver, now middle-aged, is still catching thieves. He takes under his wing a 13-year-old Portuguese boy, Sebastião Raposa, who has been smuggled to London from Lisbon, where the Portuguese Inquisition has imprisoned and killed his parents. Sebastião (who soon anglicizes himself into Sebastian Foxx) is Jewish, although his family are “New Christians” — Jews who, generations before, were forced to convert to Christianity but who are nonetheless subject to the special attentions of the Inquisition.
Fast-forward 10 years, and Weaver has taught Sebastian how to pummel thieves and practice the subtler arts of deception. Yet despite his success in London — a paradise where, he notices, there are no priests, and where Jews are free to speak Hebrew in the streets — Sebastian is deeply unhappy. Angry, violent and destructive, he decides he must return to Lisbon to exorcise his demons by avenging the death of his parents and finding his childhood sweetheart, Gabriela. As if his plans weren’t dangerous enough, he has embraced the Judaism that his ancestors were forced to abandon.
For someone such as Liss, who specializes in novels that mix low-life crime and high-level corruption, 1750s Lisbon, with its poverty, injustice and religious intolerance, is a gruesome treasure trove. There are vicious petty criminals aplenty, but the real danger is the Inquisition, “a corrupt and degenerate institution” that feeds on fear and greed. It is led by the man highest on Sebastian’s hit-list, Pedro Azinheiro, the fanatical Jesuit responsible for the destruction of his family.
Revenge, however, proves difficult for Sebastian for reasons beyond the long arm of the Inquisition. In Lisbon, financial shenanigans are as rife as religious fanaticism. Sebastian soon learns that the man who saved his life by smuggling him to England has fallen on hard times and that his father was betrayed by an English merchant for economic rather than religious reasons. Or so it seems. Sebastian’s seemingly straightforward hunt-and-kill mission suddenly becomes a complicated affair, not just a matter of knuckles and daggers (though he finds plenty of use for his fists) but also a maze of shipping manifests, currency exchanges and storerooms of gold bullion. It gets difficult for other reasons, too, as Sebastian finds himself coming up against thorny moral problems of vengeance and mercy.
Sebastian Foxx is a canny invention — “a man of action and one of principle!” declares the admiring street urchin he takes on as a servant. His anger gives him an invincibility, and he proves utterly fearless whether facing down dagger-wielding Gypsies, trading impudent banter with hostile Jesuits or calming a violent, Jew-baiting mob. If anything, Sebastian is a bit too invincible. His opponents are invariably left gurgling in their own blood, and in one hand-to-hand session, he kills six armed soldiers in 30 seconds. He even has the self-restraint to resist the sexual blandishments of a knockout redhead who makes her way unbidden into his bedroom.
Thankfully, Sebastian does have his weak spots, particularly when it comes to judging character. Liss neatly upends Sebastian’s expectations, as well as the reader’s, with a series of sudden reversals. Everyone in Lisbon turns out to have a secret side or hidden depths that Sebastian, for all his own finesse at deception and disguise, is unable to fathom. He realizes that his headlong fisticuffs and brute force leave nothing but a “path of destruction behind” him. And there is certainly plenty of destruction. The plot moves swiftly to a shattering climax that throws notions of vengeance and atonement into sharp relief.
Liss’s snappy dialogue and convincing atmosphere occasionally get tripped up by anachronistic expressions. I’m not sure that someone in 1755 would refer to “your ordinary João” or diagnose — almost two centuries before Jean-Paul Sartre first lit his pipe — an “existential dissatisfaction.” But Liss, as always, deftly negotiates the larger and trickier task of making the concerns of his period — fanaticism, persecution and corruption, as well as ideas of vengeance and forgiveness — slip neatly across the centuries and lock into our own worries and obsessions.
“I regretted that people had been hurt,” Sebastian says at one point, “but I did not regret entering into the fray.” Fans of Benjamin Weaver will be glad that he did.
King is the author, most recently, of “Leonardo and the Last Supper.”