Friday, April 23, 2010

Review: "The Devil's Company," David Liss

Reviewed by Paul Carrier for THE WALRUS SAID

David Liss is back with another engrossing look at the machinations of 18th-century business types in The Devil's Company,  which  features the return of Benjamin Weaver, a onetime boxer whose work as a private detective invariably places him in harm’s way.

In this, Weaver's third outing, we are transported to London in 1722. Our hero is blackmailed into working for the elusive Jerome Cobb, who has pledged to ruin Weaver, as well as his beloved uncle, a neighbor and Weaver’s confidante and close friend Elias Gordon,  unless Weaver does Cobb’s bidding.

Seemingly trapped, Weaver follows Cobb’s order to steal, and later return, a document belonging to the powerful textile importing East India Company, which Cobb suspects of having murdered the wonderfully named Absalom Pepper. Cobb’s interest in this crime is unclear. He heightens the aura of secrecy by ordering Weaver to investigate Pepper’s death, while simultaneously forbidding him to inquire about Pepper by name.

Weaver lands work as the head of security at the East India Company, where he finds himself working for the mercurial Ambrose Ellershaw, who fears the loss of his job because he was unable to prevent Parliament from passing a law protecting domestic textile producers from the Indian imports that are the source of the East India Company's wealth.

It is there that Weaver meets Celia Glade, a lovely and charming servant who, it turns out, is not at all what she appears to be.

The intricately plotted novel forces Weaver, a Jew who faces verbal harassment as well as the occupational risk of physical harm, to cope with a litany of mysteries surrounding Cobb’s motives, Ellershaw’s erratic behavior, Glade’s duplicity and Pepper’s background. All this while Weaver tries to lift Cobb’s stranglehold and prevent him from destroying Weaver and his loved ones.

Weaver narrates The Devil’s Company, the title of which refers to the demonic East India Company, in a voice that has a believable and appealing 18th-century ring to it, without being oppressive or distracting. In fact, Weaver’s narration immerses the reader in the London of his era, giving the novel a fine atmospheric quality.

His wry sense of humor adds a dash of levity to the proceedings. When Weaver lights a candle by touching it to the flame of Glade’s candle, for example, he tells us that the gesture “felt to me so ripe with amorous suggestion that I feared that more than wick and wax might burst into flame.”

Weaver’s sleuthing is balanced with fascinating period details, as well as an occasional look at Jewish customs and traditions. While discussing a funeral, for example, Weaver, notes the contrast between the “plain wooden casket” at a Jewish ceremony and the Christian obsession with “finery” and “ornate coffins” for the dead.

“The body, it seems to me, is a thing without life,” Weaver tells the reader. “The commemoration should be of the ineffable thing that has passed, not the material thing that remains . . . .”

As a “thieftaker” - someone adept at capturing criminals - Weaver’s intelligence, cunning, strength, and outsider status in a sometimes anti-Semitic Britain make for a fascinatingly idiosyncratic detective who leads the reader on a tour of early 18th-century London. In the process, we get an unflattering look at the workings of the modern corporation, when that all-too-familiar creature was still in its infancy.

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