In this sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss provides another varied and vivid portrait of early 18th-century British life. His protagonist, Benjamin Weaver, is a well-known "thief-taker." In a society in which there is no professional police force, Weaver and others like him perform many of the functions of today's police, private investigators, bounty hunters and criminal "enforcers." Already straddling the lines that divide respectability and criminality, Weaver is additionally vulnerable because he is a Jew in a Protestant country in which any evidence of foreignness is viewed with immediate suspicion.
The action hinges on the parliamentary elections of 1722, a referendum not only on the standing Whig government but also on the first Hanoverian monarch, King George I. Although he is not eligible to vote and has very little interest in politics, the amateur detective gets caught up in the intrigue surrounding this pivotal election: while investigating threatening letters sent to a cleric, Weaver is convicted and sentenced to hang for a dockworker's murder.
The working out of this mystery involves a fantastic prison escape, an audacious impersonation and all sorts of side-alley plot elements, including romantic tensions. Liss describes a wide range of characters and settings with such vivid and selective detail that they are pointedly individualized. All sorts of information on the life of the period from the source of the clichÅ½ "a chip on one's shoulder" to the popularity of boxing matches between male and female fighters are integrated into the narrative in a manner that enriches its immediacy, rather than compromising its focus. The descriptive details appeal to or, more often, assault all five senses, convincing the reader that England in this period was a fairly miserable place in which to live. This masterful evocation of time and place, along with the story's charm and adventure, make A Spectacle of Corruption a fascinating and worthwhile read. Martin Kich is a professor of English at Wright State University.