Book Review

Spinning a story of double-dealing

By Virginia A. Smith
November 9, 2009

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‘The Devil’s Company,’’ a historical thriller set in London in 1722, is an absorbing tale of greed, sabotage, and corruption, featuring “thieftaker’’ Benjamin Weaver battling the most powerful corporation in the world: the East India Company. This is Weaver’s third appearance as a protagonist in a David Liss book.

A former boxer, Weaver tracks down thieves and brings them to justice. He’s a Portuguese Jew, which in 18th century London means he’s an outsider. But London, “a metropolis that inhaled knowledge and exhaled revelation,’’ is a fitting milieu for Weaver, who relies as much on his wits and his ability to negotiate all levels of London society as on his skills of pugilism.

At this time, Great Britain is well on its way to becoming the world’s most powerful empire. Preeminent among its enterprises was the East India Company, traders of tea, spices, opium, silk, and cotton. But its iron grip on the textile market was loosening: The French were increasingly threatening its hegemony and the British government, to support the domestic wool industry, had banned the wearing of calicoes from India - one of the company’s major imports.

A third - and perhaps most dire - threat has emerged: the invention of a “remarkable engine, one that would allow ordinary Europeans to produce India-like calicoes from cottons farmed in the Americas.’’ Letting this engine fall into the hands of another company would spell ruin for East India; capturing it would result in a stranglehold on the textile industry. The problem: The one man capable of tracking it down has refused. The solution? Force him - Weaver - onto the East India payroll by tricking him into losing a vast sum of money and threatening him and his relations and closest friends with financial ruin.

And so begins a boisterous tale of payoffs, double-dealing, devilishly clever schemes, false identities, and corruption, where no one and nothing is as it appears, even the woman to whom Weaver is losing his heart. Is she truly as she represents herself - a member of his “nation’’ who wants to help him -or is she feigning even that?

Weaver’s London is populated by the range of humanity: the upper class, consisting of government officials, merchants, and the “bon ton’’; the working class, notably the silk weavers; and outsiders and down-and-outers: Jews, mendicants, gamers, prostitutes, even habitués of a “molly house’’ frequented by transvestites. And except for the jarring use of the word “infrastructure,’’ which wasn’t in usage until 1927, Liss’s writing is flawless and historically accurate.

My only complaints? The high-speed action so dominates the story that it could take place almost anywhere, and the historical setting of the textile industry is rather thin. Could it be because the story’s catalyst is implausible? It wasn’t until much later - the end of the 1700s - that American cotton was exported on a grand scale to England. And as for the “engines’’ for producing cloth, Hargreaves’s spinning jenny and Arkwright’s water frame weren’t invented until 1765, and Whitney’s cotton gin until 1793.

In “The Devil’s Company’’ the action is fast and furious; the characters well-drawn and compelling; and the plot twists head-snapping. It all comes together in a thoroughly enjoyable romp through 18th-century London.

Virginia A. Smith is a freelance writer.

By David Liss
Random House, 369 pp., $25

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