Review: The Devil’s Company by David Liss

The Devil’s Company continues the story of Benjamin Weaver, a Jew in early 1700’s England who used to be a pugilist and now makes his living as a “thief-taker” – in other words, he tracks people down.  In this story, Weaver is blackmailed into taking a case that requires him to infiltrate the East India Company and investigate a possible murder.  Once inside, he learns that the Company is fighting to retain the legal right to sell textiles imported from India, while the local silk weavers are fighting for legislation that allows only the selling of domestic cloth.  Beyond these basic facts, very little in the story is obvious and no one is who they say they are.

Liss’ historical fiction is excellent – his strengths are his vivid description, colorful language and well-developed characters.  As a character Ben Weaver is not your typical English detective – he’s rough, doesn’t shy away from violence, and relies more on intimidation than intellect to solve the crime.  In this book he is easily fooled, again and again.  In the very beginning he is hired on to carry out a gambling scam – when it goes wrong and he is implicated, I was surprised he didn’t see the trick for what it was.  As a character, he is not an intellectual, but he is endearing because of his strength, dedication to his friends, and his unwavering sense of justice.  As a Jew in this time he is not quite accepted by English society, and this is an interesting (and I think important) dynamic to read about.

What I really enjoy about Liss’ books is the focus on economics.  Where other writers focus on royal intrigue or military conflicts, his books really get into detail about the economics of the day.  I learned a lot in this book about the East India Company and how trade with India affected people at many different socioeconomic levels.

One of Weaver’s weaknesses as a character, which keeps him three-dimensional, is that he doesn’t know how to relate to women.  He pines for a woman who will not marry him and desires a woman he knows is a spy.  At several points in the book, women challenge his stereotypical ideas about women.  His aunt finds him shocked that she could run his uncle’s company.  And Celia Glade challenges his idea that a woman must be innocent, when the reality of this time in England is that many women lose their “innocence” early in order to survive.  He is infatuated with her but still disapproves of her – he won’t seduce her himself but he’s jealous of the other men she flirts with.  What’s nice about the way Weaver is written is that he himself seems aware of these contradictions but also seems helpless to resolve them.  At least while there are murders, blackmail, and conspiracy to deal with.

This was an entertaining read, with interesting characters and rich in historical detail.  Its one weakness may be a plot that twists and turns a bit more than necessary, particularly towards the end.  That aside, I highly recommend it.

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