When whiskey ruled the West
Blame the speculators! Banks are unstable, and the nation itself appears on the verge of collapse. Americans have turned against each other, each convinced that the other side is intent on destroying the country. No, it's not 2008, it's 1792, but that doesn't mean that the means and motives aren't the same. Indeed, in his engaging new historical novel, David Liss recounts the dawn of the fledgling US banking industry up through its almost-demise, in the 18th-century Whiskey Rebellion, through characters as intriguing, and often as disreputable, as many we are observing today.
"The Whiskey Rebels" opens with an unlikely protagonist. Ethan Saunders may have been a Revolutionary War hero, but the onetime American spy has become a drunkard and a lecher, content - almost - to be killed by a jealous husband. When he is rescued by his slave, Leonidas, and a mysterious stranger, we learn about some of the demons that torment him. Accused of treason years before, Saunders lost his good name, his best friend, and the woman he loved, and was left only with Leonidas, whom he considers a friend despite the odious institution that binds them. Indeed, Saunders is on the verge of freeing Leonidas when a letter from his onetime love, now married, calls on him for help, and soon involves him in a plan to save the fledgling country's flailing economy. Saunders needs Leonidas's aid, and tricks him into remaining, beginning a long series of deceptions and double-crosses that continue throughout the book.
But Saunders's story is only one side of the rebellion, and Liss keeps things lively by handing the other side over to a young wife, a would-be novelist named Joan Maycott who leaves New York for the wilds of the Pennsylvania frontier. There, she and her husband become involved in refining the rough home-brewed whiskey that farmers make from their excess corn and rye - a brew the new federal government has decided to tax. The Whiskey Rebellion pitted this "wild west," where whiskey was used almost as currency, against the banking establishment of Philadelphia and New York, and soon Saunders and Maycott are involved. Both consider themselves patriots; both seek to destroy the reckless speculators who would rob their young country blind. But in those shared goals are a host of differences.
Liss, whose previous mystery-adventures include the Edgar-winning "A Conspiracy of Paper," has a wonderful talent for bringing the past alive and a particular skill for finding the human drama in economic scandals. In his first three books, he dove into similar crises, using outsider characters to act out the conflicts inherent in the financial markets of 18th-century London and 17th-century Amsterdam. Following his contemporary departure, "The Ethical Assassin," the author has now come back to the history he does so well, this time moving the action to America.
It's a welcome return, and once again Liss shows his skill in creating believable, flawed narrators who can weave their way among the historical figures (including Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr) and events, lending their distinctive voices to various plots and government movements. Of necessity, Saunders is the more fun narrator. He's a semi-reformed rogue, capable of a smart insult or a witty comeback even in the face of death. But Maycott makes her case as well, as a woman changed by experience into the kind of capable leader who would shock most male politicians, even today. By the time all the tricks and turns are done, readers will miss them both, and pray that today's plotters have half as much intellect, stamina, and resolve.
Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers" (Poisoned Pen Press).