Monday, January 19, 2009
A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss
Events of the past few days had happened so quickly and so strangely, I felt I understood almost nothing, but I now knew two things with absolute certainty. I knew that someone desperately wanted to see me convicted and sentenced to hang, to which end the law had been cruelly abused.
And, just as surely, someone wanted me free.
A Spectacle of Corruption is the story of Benjamin Weaver, a jewish thieftaker, and his struggle for justice after being convicted of a crime he did not commit. Set in 18th century London, amidst a backdrop of heated Parliamentary elections, Spectacle provides a glimpse into the seedy world of British politics in the colonial age.
The story opens with Weaver's murder trial, overseen by a judge who seems intent on a conviction, no matter how feeble the prosecution's arguments. After being convicted and sentenced to death, Weaver escapes his incarceration thanks to the efforts of a mysterious young woman who slips him a lockpick and file before he is escorted from the courtroom. In an effort to clear his name, Weaver creates a new identity so that he may freely roam the streets of London gathering information. As Matthew Evans, a gentile tobacco farmer returned to Britain from Jamaica, Weaver is able to penetrate the high-class, political circles that seem to want him dead. The story takes a number of twists and turns, eventually unveiling plots involving far more than the life of Benjamin Weaver... Plots that could dismantle the entire British Government.
I've never really been one for mystery stories, but I suppose I enjoyed A Spectacle of Corruption. Benjamin Weaver is a wildly likeable character. His narration and dialogue remind me of a less pretentious version of Frasier. Not simply a man of eloquence, Weaver is a former boxer unafraid to use pugilistic persuasion on those unmoved by his verbal arguments. I suppose you could imagine Weaver as a hybrid of Oscar Wilde and Jack Bauer. Aside from Weaver's character, this story didn't strike me as anything remarkable. I enjoyed it a bit, but I don't know that I'd recommend it to anyone (unless I know they adore foppish historical fiction). The story's mystery fell flat on its face. With clues pointing Weaver to dead end after dead end eventually leading to a climax that hardly felt satisfying. And the most interesting aspect of the story, Weaver's inadvertent involvement in a Jacobite uprising, seemed underutilized.
I will say, that while the book didn't blow me away, I really respect the amount of research and work Liss must have put into making this book. From what I've read, Spectacle is a very accurate portrayal of 18th century British politics and a number of characters in the story are actual historical figures. Jonathan Wild, for example, is one of Weaver's rivals as a thieftaker and was, in fact, considered the most famous P.I./criminals of his time. Also, Liss's use of racism was delicately done. I think its easy for writers to go overboard when trying to make a character seem racist or ignorant. Its a more complex task to accurately portray how racist, ignorant people actually act. The anti-semitism in Spectacle, I thought, was very well done. The snooty, high-class, talking wigs that Weaver encounters do not keep their disdain for the Jewish community under wraps, but nor do they spend entire dinner parties spouting anti-semitic remarks. Liss was able to convey the anti-semitism of 18th century London as a pervasive undertone, instead hitting the reader over the head with it every other page.
So I suppose long story short, A Spectacle of Corruption is an excellently written (but somewhat boring) story about a very likeable character. Spectacle is the sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper, also starring Benjamin Weaver, so perhaps that story finds Weaver in more arresting circumstances.
Highlights: The use of the word "bubbies" instead of breasts, Weaver is pretty B.A.
Lowlights: All of the useless red-herrings and dead ends that add nothing to the mystery's solution.