Tuesday, September 26, 2006


One of the most interesting books I read in my school days was From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow by Arthur J Marder, an American, who was the foremost expert on the Royal Navy in the years of Fisher, Jellicoe and Beattie.

Many years later reading the Washing of the Spears by Donald Morris, I realised that another American had written the definitive history of the Zulu War, and the complications in the tripartite relationship between the English, the Anglican Church, the Boers and Zulus in Southern Africa.

Therefore it is not so surprising that one of the most impressive writers in the field of European 17th and 18th century historical crime is an American living in San Antonio, David Liss.
His knowledge about the birth of the stock market, the South Sea Bubble, finance, Amsterdam and Judaism in the period is encylcopaedic.

His first novel A Conspiracy of Paper won the Edgar Award, and featured Benjamin Weaver, a character modelled on the Jewish boxing champion of a later period, Daniel Mendoza.

In his second book The Coffee Trader we go back in time to Amsterdam in 1659 and follow Miguel Lienzo, a Portugese Jew, through a complicated series of adventures as he speculates in the wonder new drink. I found this book even more fascinating than A Conspiracyof Paper.

Davis Liss takes us right into the Nieuwe Kerk and Bloemenmarkt and makes us feel a real connection with Amsterdam and its people.
Miguel who has previously lost a considerable amount of money in sugar trading, lives in his brother Daniel's house. There is brotherly conflict exacerbated by the fact that Miguel is atracted to Daniel's beautiful wife Hannah, who was only told on her wedding day that she was Jewish.
Some of the Jews of Portugal had practised their religion in secret, but many had lost all knowledge about their ancestors faith and fully accepted Catholicism.

Miguel is encouraged by the enigmatic Gertrude Damhuis to dabble in the coffee trade, although Jews are not permitted to be in business with non-Jews.
This a condition imposed on the community by the Ma'amad, the Jewish ruling committee who have the power to excommunicate and expel from all social contact those who don't obey.

The secret relationship between Gertrude and Miguel, and the intricate plot involving Solomon Parido, a member of the Ma'amad, and an excommunicated Jew Alonzo Alferonda keep you guessing until the final pages.

David Liss has written a second Benjamin Weaver book, but I do hope we have not seen the last of Miguel Lienzo, and Amsterdam in the Golden Age.


Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm with you on The Coffee Trader. What a fascinating story. Liss has awesome knowledge of his subject. I'm not sure I'd even call the man a crime novelist or a historical novelist. I think of him as novelist and a historian.

4:32 PM  

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