It is a rare delight to come across a book that is both elegantly written and an engaging page-turner. David Liss' new novel, The Coffee Trader, is just such a narrative. If it needs to be placed into some neat category for the benefit of those who shelve books in stores, I suppose it would be called an historical mystery. But this entertaining and instructive work of fiction defies such easy classification. Set in Amsterdam in 1659, The Coffee Trader tells the story of Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew who has escaped the tyranny of the Inquisition on the Iberian peninsula for the more tolerant shores of the United Provinces. The Dutch, after their defeat of the Spanish, have built their tiny nation into a major economic European power, thanks to the robust commercial activity of their commodities exchange. A bit of a rogue, Miguel thrives on the exhilaration of the Dutch bourse, but his trades of late have been less than lucrative. He has lost a lot of money with the collapse of the sugar market, and his brandy futures are not looking too promising. He needs something to refill his depleted coffers, and he needs it now.
Enter Geertruid Damuis, a convivial, strong-minded Dutch widow with an eye for business. Miguel and Geertruid formed an unconventional alliance after she saved him from a barroom scam. Now she suggests that together they be among the first to exploit a strange new commodity being imported by the Dutch East India Company. Geertruid believes that coffee-fruit, with its mysterious mind-elevating powers, will take Europe by storm. Miguel samples it and is repulsed by its bitter taste until the caffeine begins to work its magic. He too recognizes the potential of this marvelous new commodity, and he readily agrees to forge a partnership that will tap Geertruid's money and his market expertise. They dream not only of importing coffee, but gaining a veritable monopoly over its distribution in Europe.
The plan is far from foolproof, though. Miguel has more than one adversary at the exchange, most notably Solomon Parido, a powerful member of the Jewish community's self-governing body, the Ma'amad. Miguel was betrothed to Parido's daughter until the unfortunate girl caught him in flagrante delicto with a servant. Since then, Parido has been out for blood, dead set on ensuring that all of Miguel's financial dealings go amiss. Heavily in debt, with his rivals and his creditors conspiring against him, Miguel furtively orchestrates his coffee trading plan. Timing is everything, as is the full, confidential cooperation of his allies. But rumors begin to suggest that some of those who profess to be working with Miguel may not be on his side, and the demarcation between friend and enemy becomes blurred. He even begins to suspect Geertruid's motives. And then there is Alonzo Alferonda, an excommunicated Jew turned ruthless usurer. Alferonda hates Parido, the author of his fall from grace, so he outwardly champions Miguel. But, as with most things in this deliciously tangled story, it remains unclear until the end what role he really plays.
Liss keeps us guessing as the drama is played out on the floor of the exchange and in the back alleys of Amsterdam. He meticulously recreates the 17th century Dutch city and its love affair with commerce. Yet The Coffee Trader has a welcome contemporary quality often lacking in historical fiction. The ultimate conclusion, played out amid the frenzy of the exchange trading floor, is as bracing as a visit to the New York Stock Exchange. As middle-class America watches its investments plummet with the Dow, it is oddly reassuring to be reminded that speculation, greed and the precarious nature of personal fortunes are nothing new.
The Coffee Trader is David Liss' second novel, and it is an impressive piece of work knowledgeable, witty, suspenseful. His first book, A Conspiracy of Paper, which was about a similar mania that accompanied the emergence of paper currency in 18th century London, won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Here, clearly, is a talented writer who understands the everyday drama to be found in the history of finance and one who knows how to tell a good tale, as well. Robert Weibezahl has worked in the book publishing industry for 20 years as a writer and publicist. He lives in Los Angeles.