English – Grove to Grubstreet – Honors Project
(emailed Friday, Feb. 19, 2010)
To make a living through crime requires planning and organization. Whether a prostitute and a thief conspire to rob a man, or a large corporation fights to protect the value of its company stock, the enterprises need the support of organization and planning, and a network of criminals. In The Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss, the author describes several criminal enterprises that share one thing in common. To be successful, they are all highly organized and well connected.
At the start of the story, Liss describes two criminals who are unsuccessful, a prostitute named Kate Cole who earns additional money stealing from her customers and her partner Jemmy. Kate and Jemmy are low level criminals who earn a living by running a scam. Kate gets her customers drunk and take them to a hidden alley where she robs them as they sleep, or after her partner Jemmy beats them up. Kate and Jemmy show that even at its most basic level, crime involves conspiracy and cooperation.
Kate and Jemmy also rely on a more complicated network. Kate and Jemmy worked for Jonathan Wild. They were forced to work for Wild because the simple act of robbery requires support. Stolen property has no value if it cannot be sold. Kate’s apartment full of stolen property shows the helplessness of a thief with no backer. “She had enough here that could she but sell it, she might acquire a neat little fortune” (33). When the enterprise is working, Wild purchases and sells stolen property. He also acts as an unreliable protector, turning his thieves in for reward money when they stopped earning money for him. Despite the danger of being “double crossed”, Wild provides Kate and Jemmy the organization needed to turn stolen property into cash.
As the story unfolds, we learn of even more powerful criminal elements. The Judicial system is for sale to the highest bidder. When Weaver is arrested and faces charges of manslaughter for the death of an innocent bystander, the decision whether to hang him or set him free is determined by whoever bribes the magistrate first. Jonathon Wild’s criminal enterprise remains successful because he paid off court officials. Liss echoes Daniel Defoe’s description of how things worked at Newgate Prison, the infamous London jail. According to both authors, condemned criminals were shown leniency if the officials were bribed. Wild’s infiltration of the judicial system allows him to control whether criminals are hanged after he marks them with “double crosses.”
Jonathon Wild’s operation was as organized as a large business. Liss describes the South Sea Company as being run by the most powerful and best organized criminal forces in the story. South Sea Company and the Bank of England engage in criminal actions to compete with each other and to become rich. At the heart of the story is criminal activity designed to enhance or destroy the value of South Sea Company stock. While Jonathon Wild relies on thieves and prostitutes to make him money, South Sea Company and the Bank of England contend with dishonest “stock jobbers” who try to raise and lower the company stock prices. The officers also hire thugs and murderers to defend their wealth and to kill people who threaten their business.
By the end of the story Liss has turned London society upside down and revealed criminal elements at every level of society. Kate and Jemmy are no better than Sir Owen, who is actually Martin Rochester. Sir Owen is a criminal stock jobber who has forged South Sea stock. He has even asked Jonathan Wild for his help selling the forged stock. When Weaver’s father threatened to uncover the plot, Sir Owen had them killed. Yet Sir Owen claims to be a gentleman. Weaver’s unmasking of Sir Owen as Martin Rochester occurs as Sir Owen attends the theatre with his fiancé and other wealthy Londoners. Even as Weaver is hauled away for manslaughter, Sir Owen walks free after recovering from his injuries, but is then killed by unidentified thugs.
The officers of South Sea Company are also criminals. Nathan Adelman does not convincingly deny South Sea’s responsibility for Sir Owen’s death. His sole interest is protecting the value of South Sea stock. He pays Miriam five thousand pounds for her agreement not to divulge the existence of forged stock. Sir Owen’s death helps the company because he cannot tell the world that some South Sea stock certificates are fake. Nathan Adelman also admits to Weaver that he has made himself rich while working to increase the value of South Sea stock. Nathan Adelman is similar to Jonathon Wild. Both rely on low level criminals to carry out their wishes, and both benefit from the criminal actions of others. Adelman even admitted that he made money when stock jobbers spread rumors that the “pretender” to the throne was riding into London to assume power. While Adelman’s methods of getting rich are more sophisticated, he is no more honest than Jonathon Wild.
In A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss describes criminal behavior by characters from every level of London society. Kate and Jemmy are common thieves, but they turn out to have much in common with Sir Owen who plots to forge South Sea stock certificates. Jonathon Wild is an infamous crime boss, but he has much in common with Nathan Adelman, a respected leader at the South Sea Company. For David Liss, criminal behavior exists at every social class. The link between these criminals from different social classes underscores the level of organization necessary for a criminal enterprise to succeed. Just as Jonathon Wild runs a business with low level thieves working for and sometimes against him, the South Sea Company runs a business that depends at times on criminal activities to protect its stock value and to eradicate its enemies. For David Liss, successful criminal endeavors require organization and planning just like running a business.