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The Devil's Company by David Liss

Written by eastern writer on Saturday, August 01, 2009

By Jody Seaborn
Sunday, July 12, 2009

"The Devil's Company" is the third novel from San Antonio author David Liss to feature Benjamin Weaver, a former pugilist who now makes his profit as a "thieftaker" — that is, as someone hired to recover stolen goods. Weaver has an admirable though sometimes violent sense of justice, and his vocation has earned him a degree of notoriety from the press — he even has a few star-struck fans in high places. When he takes a job that turns into a blackmail trap, Weaver is forced to join the British East India Company to protect himself and a few relatives and friends from financial ruin and debtor's prison.

Weaver narrates this historical thriller, or literary or intellectual thriller, if you prefer, recalling events that have taken place in 1722 London some 30 years after their occurrence. To stay true to an 18th-century first-person narrative, Liss writes in a style suggestive of the period, wrapping his prose in a great coat with a well-placed periwig on top. It's a risky contrivance, full of potentially phony distractions, but Liss perfectly echoes the tone, language and manners of the 1700s while keeping his characters and action accessible to contemporary readers — though as a fan of 18th-century literature (few eras produced so many enduring works as caustic or inventive) I regret that Liss achieves accessibility partly by avoiding the quirky punctuation — those seemingly randomly placed semicolons, colons and dashes — common to the century's writing.

As with any good thriller, there is plenty of espionage and machinations, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. Stratagems are invented and prepared, hardly anyone is who they seem to be and few situations are settled until the end. The novel suffers slightly from the hazards of the genre: The occasional convenient coincidence helps the plot along, and there are a couple of twists not worth going back several pages to unknot. But "The Devil's Company" offers more than intrigue: The origins of corporate power and reach — what one character calls "the warping power of greed" — inform the book's action, giving it some relevance to current events.

The British empire was ascendant in the early 1700s, its rise significantly abetted by "mercantile conquest" from the likes of the East India Company. If any business of the period was too big to fail, the East India Company was it. I don't want to make too much of this thin, timely layer beneath the book's surface suspense, but it's there and Liss, to his credit, adds it skillfully and subtly.

Liss clearly is a student of the period he chronicles. There are wispy hints of the coming gin plague — the abuse of the readily available drink reached epidemic proportions by the middle of the 18th century. There are quick references to arcane things like the window tax (the more windows a building had, the higher the taxes a landlord had to pay). To escape the tax, landords simply boarded up windows, contributing to the tightness of dark, airless rooms.

Liss also paints a good portrait of life in 18th-century London — the filthy, coal-smoky, grimy rot of it all, where class differences were sharply defined and prejudices openly expressed. Weaver, a Jew, endures frequent insults; other outsiders suffer worse fates. Despite Samuel Johnson's well-known quote that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," life in the metropolis must have been, for most of its citizens, unpleasant and unhealthy.

These historical details give "The Devil's Company" a richness that make it more than an enjoyable diversion, though, dear reader, it is foremost and most agreeably that.; 445-1702

David Liss

What: Reading and signing

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.


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