In his novel A conspiracy of Paper, David Liss weaves together a believable tale of intrigue and murder using conventions and styles that emulate those of notable eighteenth century novelists such as Daniel Defoe. Situated in 1719, the novel details Benjamin Weaver’s mysterious quest for justice and acceptance in a London that is becoming more and more involved with exchange alley and the replacement of coins by paper currency and investment bonds. Also, Benjamin Weaver’s journey provides a realistic and historically accurate description of a London underground that was uncommonly large and yet consolidated in the hands of only a few. Perhaps most importantly, Weaver’s journey, and indeed his profession as well, provide an in-depth look into the corruption of eighteenth century London’s justice system, a corruption centered on money and advanced by the influential crime syndicates and the newly emergent, powerful businesses.
In a time when social mobility increased dramatically as wealth began to include more than just land, many turned to crime as the quickest and easiest way to acquire money. With an increase in crime rate, a system of justice was loosely established to protect the honest citizens; however, unfortunately, the constables, prison-keepers, court judges, and magistrates found themselves corrupting the system as they, too, attempted to profit at every turn in hopes of finding wealth. As Weaver describes a group of constables “they were as much a pair of blackguards as ever performed the task of justice in this town…for they were known villains who delighted only in random violence” (324). This system, or should I say, lack of system, provided the foundation for powerful thief-takers, such as the notorious Jonathan Wild, to emerge and prosper. Weaver’s uncle illustrates the influence of Wild in saying that “in certain kinds of trade, one cannot but deal with Wild” (112). Elias, Weaver’s surprisingly sage Scottish friend, choices the adjective “uncertain” as most appropriate for the age, and it is precisely this uncertainty that allows for the prototype crime lords to thrive as they provide strength and stability, albeit unjust (427).
The thief-takers, however, were also aided by the punitive system. Weaver best illustrates the corruption with his concerns, “our legal system…is a terrible and fearful thing, and no man, guilty or innocent, wishes to stand before it” (294). On another occasion he says, “Faced with the arbitrary nature of our legal system, I had cause to worry, for if someone in power wished me bound over for trial, then I could see no way to avoid that fate” (419-20). Essentially, people and organizations of power could readily manipulate the law to protect themselves and hinder those who could do them harm—a lesson which Weaver learns firsthand.
What is most intriguing, and certainly most relevant to this novel, is the way in which power is obtained in eighteenth century London. Unlike in the days of the landed gentry, power was beginning to fade away from those who claimed their influence only from aristocratic lineages. Wealth became the prerequisite of power and, as people began to feel the accessibility of money, bribery and other such mechanisms only increased the power of wealth. Thus, with the combination of increasing wealth, and consequently power, and a fledgling legal system, the corruption of the period is better understood, if not justified.
This relatively newfound power from wealth provides the reason, at least indirectly, for Samuel Lienzo’s murder and Weaver’s consequent quest for justice. Today, in a country whose currency is valued only on expectations and promises, it is hard to imagine the transformation that eighteenth century London was experiencing as solid money began to find replacements in bonds and investment notes. Continuing on the theme of uncertainty, people worried what would happen to their money, no longer able to store their coins and have the satisfaction of empirical ownership. Essentially, a financial stability would be necessary to convince people to buy into the system of paper that was so championed by the South Sea Company. In proposing the notion, albeit truthfully, that false stock is in circulation, Lienzo, and later Weaver and Miriam, threaten to scare the timid buyers into thinking that their paper wealth is in jeopardy. In a time when wealth equals power and the ability to manipulate the law, such a scare would be disastrous and would certaintly be reason enough to cause Weaver so much trouble.
Overall, Liss’s novel shows us the power and influence of wealth in eighteenth century London and its ability to cause corruption strong enough to pervade every level of justice as crime becomes a new business, much like those new businesses on exchange alley, capable of creating and destroying men.