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  • Written by David Liss
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A Novel

Written by David LissAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Liss

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On Sale: March 16, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-242-1
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Chapter 1

Since the publication of the first volume of my memoirs, I have found myself the subject of more notoriety than I had ever known or might have anticipated. I cannot register a complaint or a lament, for any man who chooses to place himself in public sight has no reason to regret such attentions. Rather, he must be grateful if the public chooses to cast its fickle gaze in his direction, a truth to which the countless volumes languishing in the scribbler’s perdition of obscurity can testify.

I will be frank and say that I have been gratified by the warmth with which readers responded to the accounts of my early years, yet I have been surprised too—surprised by people who read a few lines of my thoughts and consider themselves near friends, free to speak their minds to me. And while I shall not find fault with someone who has read my words so closely that he wishes to makes observations on them, I confess I have been confounded by the number of people who believe they may comment with impunity on any aspect of my life without a moment’s regard to custom or propriety.

Some months after publishing my little volume I sat at a supper gathering, speaking of a particularly noxious criminal I intended to bring to justice. A young spark, on whom I had never before set eyes, turned to me and said that this fellow had better be careful, lest he meet the same end as Walter Yate. Here he simpered, as though he and I shared a secret.

My amazement was such that I did not say a word. I had not thought about Walter Yate in some time, and I had no idea that his name had retained any currency after so many years. But I was to discover that, while I had not contemplated this poor fellow, others had. Not a fortnight later another man, also a stranger, commented on a difficulty I faced by saying I should manage that affair in the same fashion that I had managed my business with Walter Yate. He said the name with a sly nod and a wink, as though, because he had uttered this shibboleth, he and I were now jolly co-conspirators.

It does not offend me that these men chose to reference incidents from my past. It does, however, perplex me that they should feel at liberty to speak of something they do not understand. I cannot fully express my bewilderment that such people, believing what they do about this incident, should mention it to me at all, let alone with more than a dash of good cheer. Does one go to a raree show and make light with the tigers regarding their fangs?

I have therefore decided that I must pen another volume of memoirs, if for no other reason than to disabuse the world of its ideas concerning this chapter of my history. I wish no more to hear the name Walter Yate spoken in naughty and secretive tones. This man, to the best of my knowledge, did nothing to deserve becoming the subject of a private titter. Therefore, I shall say now, truthfully and definitively, that I did not act violently upon Mr. Yate—let alone with the most definitive violence—something which, I have discovered, the world generally believes. Further, if I may disabuse the public of another misconception, I did not escape the most terrible of punishments for his murder by calling upon the influence of friends in the government. Neither of those tales is true. I had never known of these rumors because no one had ever spoken them to me before. But now, having published a few words of my life, I am every man’s friend. Let me then do the friendly service of revealing the facts about the incident, if for no other reason than that it might be spoken of no more.





Walter Yate died, beaten in the head with an iron bar, only six days before the meeting of the King’s Bench, so I had mercifully little time after my arrest to reflect on my condition while awaiting trial. I will be honest: I might have put that time to better use, but not once did I believe, truly believe, that I would be convicted for a crime I had not committed—the murder of a man of whom I had scarcely heard before his death. I ought to have believed it, but I did not.

So great was my confidence that I often found myself hardly even listening to the words spoken at my own trial. Instead, I looked out at the mob packed into the open-air courtroom. It rained a fine mist that day, and there was a considerable chill in the February air, but the crowds came anyway, crammed onto the rough and splintering benches, hunched against the wet, to watch the proceedings, which had attracted some attention in the newspapers. The spectators sat eating their oranges and apples and lit- tle mutton pastries, smoking their pipes and taking snuff. They pissed in pots in the corners and threw their oyster shells at the feet of the jury. They murmured and cheered and shook their heads as though it were all an enormous puppet show staged for their amusement.

I suppose I might have been pleased to be the subject of such a broad public curiosity, but I found no gratification in notoriety. Not when she was not there, the woman I most wanted to look upon in my time of sorrows. If I were to be convicted, I thought (only in the most romantical way, since I no more anticipated a conviction than that I should be elected Lord Mayor), I should only want her to come and cry at my feet, tell me of her regrets. I wanted her teary kisses on my face. I wanted her hands, raw and coarse with wringing, to take mine as she begged my forgiveness and pleaded to hear my vows of love repeated a hundred times. These were, I knew, mere fantasies of an overwrought imagination. She would not come to my trial, and she would not come to visit me before my fanciful execution. She could not.

My cousin’s widow, Miriam, whom I had sought to marry, had wedded herself six months before to a man named Griffin Melbury, who at the moment of my trial busied himself with preparations for standing as the Tory candidate in the election soon to commence in Westminster. Now a convert to the Church of England and the wife of a man who hoped to rise as a prominent opposition politician, Miriam Melbury could ill afford to attend the trial of a Jewish ruffian-for-hire, one to whom she was no longer attached by the bonds of kinship. Kneeling at my feet or covering my face with tear-wet kisses was hardly the sort of behavior to which she was inclined under any circumstances. It would surely not happen now that she had given herself to another man.

Thus, in my hour of crisis, I dwelled less on the possibility of impending doom than I did on Miriam. I blamed her, as though she could be held accountable for this absurd trial—after all, had she married me, I might have abandoned thieftaking and would not have brought myself into the circumstances that had led to this disaster. I blamed myself for not pursuing her more vigorously—though three marriage proposals ought to meet any man’s definition of vigor.

So, while the lawyer for the Crown attempted to convince the jury to convict me, I thought of Miriam. And, because even as I dwell with longing and melancholy I remain a man, I also thought about the woman with yellow hair.

It must be seen as no surprise that my mind wandered to other women. In the half year since Miriam had married, I had distracted myself—not with the intent of forgetting, you must understand, but with the aim of making my sense of loss more exquisite—largely by indulging in vices, and those vices consisted principally of women and drink. I regretted that I was not of a gambling disposition, for most men I knew found that vice to be as distracting as the two I favored, if not more so. But in the past, having paid the high price of money lost at game, I could not quite grasp the entertainment in viewing a pair of greedy hands collecting a pile of silver that had once been my own.

Drink and women: Those were vices on which I could depend. Neither needed to be of particularly fine quality; I was of no temper to be overly choosy. Yet, here was a woman, sitting at the edge of one of the benches, who absorbed my attention as nearly as anything could in those dark times. She had pale yellow hair and eyes the color of the sun itself. She was not beautiful, but she was pretty and had a kind of pert demeanor, with her pointy nose and sharp chin. Though no great lady, she dressed like a woman of the middling ranks, neatly, but without flair or much of a nod to fashion. Rather, she let nature do what her tailor could not, and exposed to the world in a deeply cut bodice the expanse of a dazzling bosom. There was, in short, nothing that would have kept me from finding her a delight in an alehouse or tavern, but no particular reason why she should command my attention while I sat on trial for my life.

Except that she did not once take her eyes from me. Not for a moment.

Others looked at me, of course—my uncle and aunt with pity and perhaps with admonition, my friends with fear, my enemies with glee, strangers with unpitying curiosity—but this woman fixed on me a desperate, hungry gaze. When our eyes locked, she neither smiled nor frowned but only met my look as though we had shared a lifetime together and no word need be spoken between us. Anyone observing would have thought us married or sweethearts, but I had never to my recollection—none the best during those six months of hearty drinking—seen her before. The enigma of her gaze monopolized my thoughts far more than the enigma of how I came to stand trial for the death of a dockworker I’d never heard of two days before my arrest.

The rain had begun to fall harder and turn frozen when the prosecuting lawyer, an old fellow named Lionel Antsy, called Jonathan Wild to the stand. In that year, 1722, this notorious criminal was still widely believed to be the only true bulwark against the marauding armies of thieves and brigands that plagued the metropolis. He and I had long been rivals in our thieftaking efforts, for our methods were none too similar. I believed that if I helped honest folk to recover their lost goods, I should receive a handsome reward for my labors. Granted, my work was not always quite so principled. I was willing to track down elusive debtors, to use the skills I’d gained in the pugilist’s ring to teach lessons to rascals (provided they deserved such treatment in my eyes), to intimidate and frighten and scare men who required such usage. I would not, however, inflict harm on those I believed undeserving of rough treatment, and I’d even been known to let a debtor or two escape my capture—always with an apologetic lie to my employer—if I heard a credible tale of a starving wife or sick children.

Wild, however, was a ruthless rogue. He would send forth his thieves to steal goods and then sell the same items back to their owners, all the while pretending to be the lone voice of London’s victims. These methods, I admit, were far more profitable than mine. Hardly a cutpurse in London lined his pockets without Wild taking his share. No murderer could hide his bloodstained hands from Wild’s scrutiny, even if the great thieftaker had ordered the murder himself. He owned smuggling ships that visited every port in the kingdom and had agents in every nation in Europe. The stockjobbers of ’Change Alley hardly dared to buy and sell without his nod. He was, in short, a remarkably dangerous man, and he bore me no love.

In our incompatible efforts, we had clashed more than once, though our clashes tended toward the cool rather than the hot. We circled around each other, like dogs more eager to bark than fight. Nevertheless, I could not doubt that Wild would relish this opportunity to see me destroyed. As he had made a career out of perjuring himself before any jury that would listen, I now only waited to discover the severity of his condemnation and the verve with which he delivered it.

Mr. Antsy hobbled toward the witness, hunched over to keep the frozen rain from his face. He looked to be anywhere between fifty and one hundred years of age—gaunt as death itself, with his skin hanging loose about his face like an empty wine bladder, and his head bobbing above the mass of his greatcoat. His peruke, limp from the rain, hung askew and was of such a horrible condition I could only suppose he had purchased it at the dip in Holborn, where a man might pay threepence for the chance to blindly pull a used wig from a box. Not having bothered to shave that morning, and perhaps the morning before, his face was fertile with strands of weedy white hair that poked from out the rugged earth of his face.

“Now, Mr. Wild,” he said, in his shrill and quivering voice, “you have been called here to testify to the character of Mr. Weaver because you are widely regarded as something of an expert in criminal matters—a student of the philosophy of crime, if you will.”

“I like to think so of myself,” he said, his country accent so thick that the jury leaned in closer, as though proximity might help them to understand better. Wild, on whom the rain hardly dared to fall, held himself erect and smiled almost pityingly at Mr. Antsy. How could an old pettifogger like Antsy inspire anything but contempt in a man who routinely sent his own thieves to hang that he might retrieve the forty-pound bounty offered by the state?

“You are widely regarded, sir, as the metropolis’s most effective agent in the sphere of thieftaking, is that not right?”

“It is,” Wild said, with an easy pride. He was advancing into his middle years then, but he appeared nonetheless handsome and vibrant in his trim suit and wig. He had a deceptively kind face, too, with large eyes, rounded cheeks, and a warm and avuncular smile that made people like him and trust him at once. “I am known as the Thieftaker General, and it is a title I bear with both pride and honor.”

“And in this capacity, you have come to know the many aspects of the criminal world, yes?”

“Precisely, Mr. Antsy. Most people understand that if they should lose an article of some importance, or wish to track down the perpetrator of a crime, no matter how heinous, I am the man to seek.”

There was never a poor opportunity to enhance one’s reputation, I thought. Wild intended to see me hang and get a few puffs in the newspapers at the same time.

“Then you think yourself privy to the criminal doings in our metropolis?” Antsy asked.

“I have applied myself to this trade for many years now,” Wild answered. “There are few matters of criminality that escape my notice.”

He neglected to mention that he noticed these matters of criminality because, in general, he or his agents orchestrated them.

“Tell us, if you will,” Antsy said, “of Mr. Weaver’s connection to the death of Walter Yate.”

Wild paused for a moment. I glared at him. I did my utmost to say with silent words that he must know I would never be convicted, and if he crossed me in this I would not let the matter go. Proceed, I told him with my eyes, and you will be proceeding toward your own doom. Wild met my stare for a moment and nodded ever so slightly, conveying a significance I could not fathom. He then turned to Antsy.

“I can tell you almost nothing of that,” he said.

Antsy opened his mouth, but it seemed to take him a moment to realize the answer he received was not the one he had been anticipating. He pressed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, as though trying to squeeze Wild’s answer from his flesh the way a cider maker wrings juice from an apple. “What do you mean, sir?” he asked, in a quivering voice more shrill than its usual.

Wild smiled slightly. “Only that I have no knowledge of the matters surrounding Yate’s death or of Weaver’s supposed involvement—only what I have read in the newspapers. It is my goal to discover the truth behind all horrific crimes, but I cannot learn everything. Though I do try, I promise you.”

Every spectator at the King’s Bench could see from the slackening of Antsy’s face that the lawyer had expected something quite different from Wild. A lecture on the danger I posed to London, perhaps. A recounting of my former crimes. A list of atrocities in which he had long suspected my involvement. But Wild had a different game in mind—one that baffled me entirely.

Antsy looked up and grimaced. He took a deep breath that puffed out his chest nearly to the size of a normal man’s and gritted his teeth into a deathly smile. “Do you not think Weaver a vicious man, quite capable of killing anyone, even a total stranger, without cause? And, accordingly, quite capable of killing Walter Yate? Is it not correct to say that you know with certainty that he did kill Walter Yate?”

“On the contrary,” Wild answered blithely, like an anatomy instructor asked to discuss the mysteries of respiration. “I be- lieve Weaver to be a man of honor. He and I are not friends; in truth, we often find ourselves opposed. If I may be so bold, I think Weaver to be a rather miserable sort of thieftaker, who does the state and those who pay him a disservice. But being miserable in his trade does not make him necessarily a wicked man any more than a cobbler should be called wicked for making pinching shoes. I have no more reason to think Weaver guilty of this crime than I do any other man. To my knowing, you might be as guilty as he.”

Antsy spun toward the judge, Piers Rowley, who stared at Wild with an astonishment equal to the lawyer’s. “M’lord,” Antsy complained, “this is not the testimony I had expected. Mr. Wild was to have spoken of Weaver’s crimes and cruelties.”

The judge turned to the witness. Like Antsy, he was well into his later years, but with his large face and ruddy complexion he wore his age far more comfortably than the lawyer. Antsy appeared starved for all nourishment, but the judge looked to receive more than his share. His enormous jowls were big with beer and roast beef and puffed like a fat infant’s.

“Mr. Wild,” Rowley said to the witness, “you will provide Mr. Antsy with the testimony he wishes.”

I had not quite expected this reply. I did not know him well by any means, but I had observed Rowley in the past—when called to testify against men I had helped bring to justice—and I had always found in him as much fairness and honesty as one could hope for in a man of his profession. He took bribes sparingly, and then only to secure a ruling he had intended to make without financial incentive. I had ever noted that he took his role as protector of the defendant seriously, and I had felt a measure of relief when I learned he was to preside over my trial. Now it appeared that my optimism had been misplaced.

“Begging your pardon, m’lord,” Wild answered, “but I cannot answer for his expectations. Having sworn an oath to speak the truth, I must do so.”

Here was something comical. Wild had no more loyalty to oaths than a Frenchman does to clean linen. Still, he sat there, incur- ring the anger of the prosecuting lawyer and the judge, rather than speak ill of me. Wild, who spent far more time in the courts than I, surely knew Rowley’s temperament. He could not but have known that the judge was a man who held himself with more than his share of gravity and would not let an insult to his authority pass lightly. By defending me as he did, Wild risked great injury to himself and his trade, for he must now expose himself to Rowley’s hostility during future trials. As perjuring himself was among his most important sources of income, an adversarial judge could make his life most uncomfortable.

Antsy understood the situation no better than I. He brushed the rain off his face. “Given his reluctance to speak the truth, I have nothing more to hear from this witness,” the old lawyer said. “You may go, Mr. Wild.”

I rose to my feet. “Begging your pardon, m’lord, but I have not yet had a chance to cross-examine.”

“No more questions to this witness.” Rowley banged his gavel.

Wild stepped down and winked in my direction. I only stared blankly in return.

My pretty yellow-haired admirer wept into the sleeve of her coat, and she was not alone in her dismay. The spectators quickly answered with catcalls and hisses, and a few apple cores flew toward us. I was not such a popular figure with the mob that they would brook no insult to me, but they knew injustice when they saw it, and no rabble of this city will stand idly by while a fellow is mistreated by the law. Not in those days, when there was such little work to be had and bread was so dear. Rowley, however, had years of experience with such outbursts, and he banged his gavel once more, this time with an authority that brought down a veil of silence.

I was not so easily calmed. In our system of law, a defendant does not have a lawyer because it is presumed that the judge will act as his advocate. Often as not, however, a defendant finds himself with an unkind judge and thus with no protection whatsoever. I had never before had cause to lament the inequities of this system, for I was used to being in the position of wishing to see men convicted, that I might collect a bounty—and see justice served, of course. But now I found I could not call my own witnesses, question as I liked, or defend myself adequately. Judge Piers Rowley, a man I knew only from a distance, seemed intent upon destroying me.





Antsy next called Spirit Spicer, a fellow of whom I had never heard—how should I forget so colorful a name? He was young, only a working lad, and clearly of the lower ranks. Spicer had dressed himself to the best of his ability, but his blouse was torn in sev- eral places and his breeches stained in a way that any man of a respectable station would find embarrassing, to say the least. He had cut his hair short for the trial, using, I would suspect, a dull blade, and he looked as though he had caught his head in a grain mill.

Through a needlessly protracted line of questioning (no doubt to help him regain his sense of order after the unfortunate business with Wild), Antsy revealed that Spicer had been upon the quays in Wapping the day of Yate’s death and claimed to have witnessed the mayhem of that afternoon and the murder itself. “I saw that man there,” Spicer said, pointing to me. “He killed the fellow, Yate. He struck him, he did. And then he killed him. By striking him.”

“You are sure of this?” Antsy asked. His voice rang with triumph. His witness spoke as he wished. The rain had now let up somewhat. All was well in the world.

“I have never been so sure of very many things in some long while,” Spicer assured him. “Weaver done it. That’s for certain. I was close enough to see everything, and to hear it too. I heard what Weaver said before he done it. Heard his malicious and damning words, I did.”

The old lawyer squinted in evident confusion but proceeded all the same. “And what did Mr. Weaver say?”

“He said, ‘This is what happens to those who anger the man they call Johnson.’ That’s what he said. Clear as day. Johnson. That’s the name he said.”

I had no notion of who this Johnson was and neither, apparently, did Antsy. He opened his mouth to say something but then thought better of it and turned away, announcing that he had no more questions as he took his seat.

“Johnson,” Spicer repeated.

Judge Rowley turned to me. “Mr. Weaver, would you care to ask the witness a question or two?”

“I’m delighted to learn that Mr. Spicer is on the list of witnesses that I may, indeed, question,” I said. I regretted my words the instant I spoke them, but they drew a laugh from the gallery, and I took some comfort in that. Rowley had shown himself biased against me, but I was still foolish enough to believe his position would soon change. During my week in prison, I had been given little opportunity to inquire into Yate’s death, but I had sent my good friend Elias Gordon about town, asking questions for me, and I was fully confident that what we had discovered would soon end this farce.

I glanced over to the part of the galleries where Elias sat, and he nodded eagerly, his thin face flushed with pleasure. It was time to strike a fatal blow against this disgrace to justice.

I rose from my seat, brushed the ice off my coat, and approached the witness. “Tell me, Mr. Spicer. Have you ever met a man named Arthur Groston?”

Perhaps I anticipated that Spirit Spicer would blush or blanch or tremble. He might bear down and deny knowing Groston, in which case I would have to badger him until he confessed. But Spicer thought neither to resist nor, if his face was any indication of his heart, feel a jot of shame. For all the world, his easy and open grin suggested a fellow interested only in pleasing anyone who might be so kind as to ask him a question or two. “Aye, I’ve met Mr. Groston. More than once.”

The ease of this admission disoriented me, but I pressed on all the same. “In your time of knowing Mr. Groston, has he ever offered you any money to perform a service?”

“Aye, he has done so. Mr. Groston is extreme generous, he is, and he makes a point to look after me, on account of his cousin being a friend of my mother’s, sir. He believes in looking after family, sir, as does my family, which is why he helped me out.”

I smiled at the fellow. We were all friends here. “How would you describe the service that Mr. Groston asks of you?”

“I would describe it as generous and kind,” Spicer said. Here the crowd laughed and Spicer grinned broadly, imagining himself the mob’s darling rather than its clown.

“Allow me to ask that question another way,” I said.

Antsy rose slowly to his feet. “M’lord, Mr. Weaver is wasting the court’s time with this witness. I move you dismiss him.”

Rowley spent an instant considering Antsy’s request, and I believe he would have complied, but the crowd, sensing a bias, began to hiss. It began softly but soon swelled, so that the King’s Bench sounded as though it were a court of serpents. No apple cores this time; perhaps that was what agitated the judge. The noise held the menace of a storm not yet broke. Unwilling to risk a riot, Rowley said I might continue but advised that I cease my leisurely approach, for there were other men awaiting trial this day.

I began again. “Let me be plain,” I said to Spicer, “that the judge may not grow restless. Does Mr. Groston ever, to your knowledge, pay people to testify at trials?”

“For certain. He is an evidence broker. What else should he do?”

I smiled. “And did Arthur Groston provide you with money to say that you had seen me strike and kill Walter Yate?”

“Yes, sir,” Spicer said, nodding eagerly. “He paid me before to say suchlike things on suchlike occasions as this one, but he never before paid so much as the half crown he give me for saying as I done just now.”

The spectators murmured loudly. Here was drama they had never expected. In an instant I had completely devastated the prosecution. My aunt and uncle took each other’s hands and nodded in triumph. Elias strained in his seat to avoid standing and taking a bow, for it was his dedication that had led us to this bit of knowledge. The woman with the yellow hair clapped her hands together with joy.

“So.” I looked to the jury box, meeting the gaze of each man. “Do you now tell us, Mr. Spicer, that you never actually saw me harm Walter Yate, but that you said so only because you have been paid to say so by a notorious evidence broker?”

“That’s it,” Spicer said. “That’s it on the oyster’s shell, as they say.”

I threw up my hands in mock exasperation. “Why,” I demanded, “if you have been paid to say you saw me kill Mr. Yate, do you now admit that you never saw it at all?”

Spicer took a moment to puzzle over this question. “Well,” he suggested, “I got paid to say I saw something, but I never got paid to say I didn’t see it. So long as I said I saw it, I done what I was meant to have done.”

Having spent some years performing for the public as a fighter, I knew a little about the rhythm of spectacle, so I let his words hang in the air for a moment before commencing once more. “Tell me, Mr. Spicer,” I said, after I sensed a sufficient pause, “have you never heard of perjury?”

“For certain,” he said brightly, pointing to the jury box. “That’s them right there.”

“Perjury,” I explained, once the laughter diminished, “is a crime. It is the crime of swearing to speak the truth at a trial and then knowingly speaking false. Do you not think yourself guilty of this crime?”

“Oh, no.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Mr. Groston explained it to me. He said it ain’t no more a crime than it is blasphemy for an actor to speak out against God, if he do it while playing on the stage. That’s all it is.”

My having finished with the witness, Mr. Antsy moved to question Spicer once more. “Did you see Mr. Weaver kill Walter Yate?”

“Yes, I did!” he announced cheerfully. He then looked over to me, as though waiting for me to question him so he could tell me once more that he hadn’t.

Antsy next brought out another eyewitness, a man of middle years named Clark, who also said he had seen me commit this crime. When I had the chance to examine him, he resisted a bit more than young Mr. Spicer, but he at last admitted that he had been paid by the evidence broker, Arthur Groston, to say he had seen what he had not. I had every reason to regret that the law does not permit a defendant to call witnesses, for I would have liked very much to know who paid Mr. Groston to secure this evidence. But the information I had obtained, I believed, more than answered my purposes, and there would be time enough for Groston later. The Crown had no evidence against me but two eyewitnesses, men who had admitted that they had seen nothing at all but the coin in their hands.

And so, as I gazed at the yellow-haired woman, I thought myself safe. Mr. Antsy had done his job admirably, proving that age need be no impediment to any man who maintained a youthful ambition, but the evidence against me had been exploded. Nevertheless, when it came time for the judge to direct the jury, I realized I had been overly optimistic and had put perhaps too much confidence in that phantasm called truth.

“You have heard many things,” the honorable Piers Rowley told the jury, “and many things of a contradictory nature, too. You have heard witnesses say they have seen something and then, as though a trick done by Gypsy showman, you have heard them say they had not. You must decide how best to unravel this puzzle. As I cannot tell you which way to do so, I can only say that there is, perhaps, no more reason to believe a tale refuted than a tale spoken. You cannot know if these witnesses have been paid to say they saw something or paid to say they did not. I have no knowledge of evidence brokers, but I do know of villainous Jews and the tricks they will play to secure their freedom. I know that a race of liars might well pay honest coin to turn other men dishonest. I hope you will not be blinded by such petty cheats nor expose every Christian man, woman, and child in London to the ravages of a rapacious nation who might come to believe they can murder us with impunity.”

And so the jury went off to make its decision.


From the Hardcover edition.
David Liss|Author Q&A

About David Liss

David Liss - A Spectacle of Corruption

Photo © Trishi Monite

David Liss is the author of The Whiskey Rebels ,The Ethical Assassin, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader,and A Conspiracy of Paper. He is also winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children.

Author Q&A

An Interview with David Liss by Tammar Stein

Tammar Stein is the author of Light Years. She is currently working on
her second novel. Her essays and articles have been published in
The
Washington Post, Stars and Stripes, and the San Antonio Express-
News among other publications.

Tammar Stein: Your past three novels have been impressively researched.
How do you go about it? Do you plot out the story and then research to
fill in the details, or do you read about certain historical events and think,
Hey, that would make a really great story?

David Liss: Usually I begin with the germ of an idea and then
start the research, which often takes me in very different places
than I first imagined it would. When I started Spectacle, I had the
idea of writing a novel that would focus on the remnants of the
belief in witchcraft in early eighteenth-century England. I spent
months researching the topic, and I ultimately came to the conclusion
that the best way to talk about it would be in the context
of politics—that is, an accusation of witchcraft emerging as an
issue in a parliamentary campaign. But as I did the research into
the political system in eighteenth-century England, I realized I was
more interested in that than my original idea. The truth is, there’s
a strange and unpredictable alchemy when it comes to crafting a
story. I don’t understand why a particular story grabs me and becomes
a pleasure to write, but I’ve been through the experience
enough times now that I’ve learned to trust my instincts and not
fight it when an idea suddenly feels full of energy to me.

TS: What’s your writing schedule like? And which do you enjoy more, the
writing or the research?

DL: I love research and I love learning about the past, but I much
prefer writing. When I’m logging long hours in the library, I’m always
anxious to get started with the actual storytelling. I tend to
work fairly businesslike hours. I try to get started writing no later
than 8:30 in the morning, and I write until I’m no longer producing
anything of value. Then I’ll spend the rest of the day doing research
or in other kinds of edifying reading. I’m lucky enough to
be in a career where I can actually read novels and convince myself
that I’m working.

TS: What’s the hardest thing about writing historical fiction?

DL: For me, the hardest thing is trying to give readers as authentic
and accurate a feeling of the past as I possibly can while at the
same time appealing to modern storytelling sensibilities. The novelist
who writes about the past is almost always in danger of lapsing
into anachronism, and I know full well that the historical novel
without errors has never been written. Still, it’s easy to make yourself
crazy trying to get everything right. I’ve also discovered that
just because something is right doesn’t mean it seems right. Sometimes
eighteenth-century words or phrases may seem anachronistic
to contemporary readers, and those are best avoided because
you don’t want to jar your reader. The other trick is to pack in as
much interesting period detail as you can, but not so much that
you overwhelm the story.

TS: In an interview with Sheri Holman, you said that you wanted to
write another book about Ben Weaver, but not about finance. Instead
you’ve placed him smack in the middle of a heated political race and shown
yet another aspect of eighteenth-century England that seems remarkably
contemporary. Does it surprise you how much in common the eighteenth
century seems to have with the twenty-first?

DL: The short answer is, Yes. As with financial chicanery, I’m
amazed at how little the basic nature of political corruption has
changed in the last three hundred years; only the particulars are
different. People with money still buy politicians and politicians
still buy votes. The corruption of eighteenth-century England
seems different from our own only in its brazenness. Today we feel
the need to hide the corruption from ourselves, convince ourselves
that it’s not that bad, that things are basically good. In the
time this novel is set, the corruption of the system was an open secret.
I suppose the difference is that Georgian England made no
pretenses of being what we would think of as democracy. The political
leaders had no real interest in representation, just revenues
and order. Today, because our system is founded upon ideals of
representation and fairness, the idea that those principles have
been subverted by great wealth is too difficult for us to face.

TS: You’ve said that your graduate-student debt led to a fascination with
the beginning of the stock market and the notion of debt, which in turn inspired
A Conspiracy of Paper. The Coffee Trader was born from a
deep connection to coffee. Did your political beliefs lead you to write about
a corrupt and hotly contested election season?

DL: Not directly. I absolutely did not start out to write a commentary
about contemporary politics wrapped in the camouflage
of eighteenth-century politics. Rather, the preposterous and theatrical
nature of Hanoverian politics captured my imagination, and
I ran with it. I did have some contemporary political figures in
mind as I crafted the characters, but as so often happens in fiction,
the demands of the story and of the characters themselves took
precedence over my original ideas, and the real-world inspirations
for my fictional characters are now pretty hard to excavate. That
said, I do feel that there is important political work to be done by
writing a novel that exposes the corruption of another age. It’s
easy for us to look back at eighteenth-century Britain and think
how foolish those people were to put up with a system that was
both corrupt and broken. It is harder to look at our own system
and to see the things that, three hundred years from now, will appear
criminal and absurd.

TS: There seem to be more than a few similarities between the political
stances of the eighteenth-century Whigs and Tories and our current political
situation. Is this a case of the more things change the more they stay the
same?

DL: The similarities are fairly deceptive. I’m often asked to link
one party to Republicans and the other to the Democrats, and it
doesn’t work that exactly. The Tories were the more conservative
party, but they concerned themselves mostly with preserving social,
political, and religious power. The Whigs, on the other hand,
were by no means liberal as we understand the word today. They
cared relatively little for helping the poor and the underclasses or
pursuing social justice. Instead, they wanted to break down the
cultural barriers that prevented moderately wealthy and powerful
people from becoming extremely wealthy and powerful. They
fought for the rights of non–Church of England Protestants, for
example, and they pursued an agenda that favored men of business
rather than men whose wealth rested in land.

TS: Let’s talk about Benjamin Weaver. He seems more self-aware in this
book, more conscious to the notion of justice and his meting of it. Sometimes
he feels comfortable being the unofficial arm of the law, and other times
he doesn’t. Sometimes he decides to be merciful and other times he isn’t.
Is he moving away from his physical, fighting days? Or is this just a sign
that he’s maturing and no longer able to view the world in simple blackand-
white terms?

DL: I’ve always tried to create characters who are ambiguous and
as complicated as people are in real life. Weaver may behave in
superficially contradictory ways at times, but so do we all. He
does, however, have an overriding sense of justice that directs his
actions—sometimes it meshes with the law and sometimes it
clashes with the law. Characters who live this way are great fun to
write, and I hope they are fun to read about as well.
As far as his moving away from his fighting days, I don’t think I
would put it in quite that way. He certainly has no desire to step
back into the ring—though in a future novel, he may be forced to
do so—but for most of his life he has depended on violence as one
of the many tools on which he can draw. One of the things I enjoy
about writing his stories is the way in which he isn’t shy to go beyond
boundaries most of us would never cross. He lives in a lawless
society, and force is often necessary.

TS: Ben Weaver’s relationship with Miriam has gone from bad to worse.
For a man who usually sees things pretty clearly, he remains consistently
blind about her and her motivations. Are we going to see her again in later
books or will he finally get her out from under his skin? Why is a woman
his blind spot?

DL: I think Miriam undermines Weaver’s clarity for all the best
reasons. He is trying hard to use his intellect and the ideas of
probability to solve his problems, but we all know that when it
comes to romance, the intellect takes a backseat to emotion. I like
having him care for her, almost to the point of obsession, because
it can lead him to actions that reason alone would never permit.
That said, I’m not sure what is going to happen with Miriam.
The narrative difficulty I’ve set up for myself is that the tension between
the two characters exists in their separation. If I bring them
together, the feeling of resolution may permanently harm the
character. On the other hand, I don’t want to keep bringing
Miriam out in each book so that Weaver can be miserable. I suspect
I will resolve the relationship in one way or another at some
point in the future. In the meantime, she may not merit more than
a few passing references in the next Weaver novel.

TS: The notion of identity comes into play quite a bit in this novel.
Weaver has several personas he puts on. Miriam struggles to reinvent herself.
Jacobites hide out as Tories. In the end, though, no one is truly successful in fooling anyone for long. Are you trying to say something? Is there
a lesson for us here? Or is that just life?

DL: I was not trying to be overly philosophical, but there is an inherent
truth about appearance and perception that I was playing
out in those scenes. In our own post-capitalist era, we know that
only too well as the line between personality and branding grows
increasingly nebulous. But the construction of identity through
fashion or presentation is not a new thing, and people often perceive
in pieces rather than in complete parts. Thus, by changing
his clothes, Weaver can appear to be a very different sort of person
than he truly is. And certainly the same thing applies for the
eighteenth-century British political system. Politicians can appear
as good-natured fellows who throw parties for their voters, give
away free beer and host puppet shows, but this appearance of jollity
hides a much greedier agenda.
On a less lofty level, I wanted to play with the possibilities of
identity in a pre-media-saturated culture. Even though Weaver becomes
something of a minor celebrity over the course of this
novel, it is still quite easy for him to disguise himself because no
one who has not actually seen him knows what he looks like. London
was a massive city, but it was made up of countless small
neighborhoods and social circles. It was relatively easy for people
to change their names and their identities then to escape from the
law or a creditor or an unhappy marriage. I merely allowed Weaver
to do what countless people in eighteenth-century London did all
the time—put on new clothes, take a new name, and become a
new person.

TS: You’ve left room for interpretation regarding the ending. Why did you
decide to do that? And do you know what happened or are some things
hidden even from the writer?

DL: I won’t go into too much detail in case anyone reads this interview
before reading the book, but I did leave a rather important
detail unclear at the novel’s conclusion. I did that mostly because I
liked the ambiguity, and Weaver’s reticence to speak clearly made
a great deal of sense to me; it felt in keeping with his character.
And the truth is, I don’t quite know what happened either. I gave
it some thought, and I decided it was better if I could keep it hidden
from myself. As a writer, I want to keep Weaver as a fully
fleshed-out character I can manipulate and move around, but I also
like the idea that he has deep recesses I haven’t yet explored.

Praise

Praise

“[A] wonderful book . . . every bit as good as [Liss’s] remarkable debut . . . Easily one of the year’s best.”
–The Boston Globe

“[A] rousing sequel of historical, intellectual suspense."
San Antonio Express-News

“Liss is a superb writer who evokes the squalor of London with Hogarthian gusto.”
People

“In Benjamin Weaver, Mr. Liss has created a multifaceted character and a wonderful narrator.”
The New York Sun

“With eloquent wit, Liss manipulates the concepts of misdirection and probability theory in his serpentine third novel. . . . It all ends with yet another twist that seems to promise we’ll hear more from–and more of–the indefatigable Benjamin Weaver. Let’s hope so.”
–Kirkus Reviews

“Gritty historical fiction . . . glorious dialogue, lively rogues [and a] fascinating setting.”
Publishers Weekly
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The justice system in the eighteenth century seems outrageously
unjust. No defense attorneys, judges who make a living
through bribes, and shopkeepers who sell evidence. What do you
think will shock readers three hundred years from now about our
justice system?

2. Benjamin Weaver seems to be a mix of brutality and compassion,
the practical and the idealistic. What do you think of his
sense of justice? Do you agree with the decisions he makes of
whom to punish and whom to let go? What do his inconsistencies
tell you about his character?

3. Eighteenth-century parliamentary elections had expensive campaigns,
bribes, and thugs. They attracted the power-hungry and
the greedy, liars and thieves. Is there something inherent about
politics that draws these types of people to it? Is there anything
that can be changed about how campaigns are run that would
minimize corruption?

4. In one fell swoop, Miriam completely reinvented herself. She
converted, married a man from an utterly different background,
and is even called by a different first name. Do you think it is possible
to be happy with so many drastic life changes? Does turning
your back on your heritage have more to do with hating your past
than loving your future? Or is this simply the fulfillment of a lifelong
wish to live the life you believe you were meant to live and
not the one you were born into? Is this ability to reinvent yourself
something with which people in earlier times might have been
more comfortable?

5. When Weaver dresses as Matthew Evans or as a footman he discovers
a whole new world. Is it as easy in today’s world to change
your clothes and dabble in a different world? Can you still walk a
mile in someone else’s shoes? Are social classes today as obvious or
permanent?

6. Weaver keeps expecting to be betrayed by Jonathan Wild, and
is constantly surprised when that doesn’t happen. Is Wild as untrustworthy
as Weaver thinks he is? Does the novel suggest that
there is honor among thieves?

7. There are several incidents of extreme cruelty to animals in the
novel. Dogmill, the most brutal villain, clearly relishes goose pulls
and cockfights, and was apparently responsible for killing Mendes’s
beloved dog. Is there a connection between cruelty to animals and
cruelty to humans? Is Mendes humanized by his love for his pets?
Or is his conduct toward his fellow man worse when juxtaposed
with his ability to display compassion and kindness to animals?

8. Grace Dogmill and Miriam Melbury are very different women,
yet they both refuse to settle into the roles that society would like
to place them in. Are they equally justified in not wanting to remain
where they have been pigeonholed? Who do you think is
more sympathetic? Who is stronger?

9. Is Griffin Melbury a good man with a gambling habit and a
quick temper or is he a bad man with a deceivingly pleasant personality?
Do you think that Weaver is objective enough to tell the
difference? Is Miriam?

10. What do you think of the ending? What does Weaver suggest
about his role in what happens to Melbury, and why does he depend
so much on hint and innuendo?


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