A Spectacle of Corruption, by David Liss

Once again, I have started a series in the middle. I was so sure when I bought A Spectacle of Corruption that it was the first book in the series. Turns out that its the second book in a trilogy. Fortunately, I didn’t need to know much about the first book to enjoy this one.

885620We meet Weaver in court, being tried for the murder of Walter Yate, a porter. Since Weaver doesn’t have an advocate (they didn’t have such things as defending attorneys in eighteenth century England), he has to question the witnesses against him. Even after he finds out that the witnesses were paid to testify against him, things go against Weaver when the Judge pretty much orders the jury to find against the thief taker. As he is being taken away to Newgate Prison, someone slips him a file and lock pick. Weaver makes a daring escape from the prison and then the hard part starts: figuring out how the hell he ended up in prison in the first place and clearing his name. Once he starts asking questions, Weaver discovers that what started as a matter of some threatening notes was really just the opening salvos between the Whigs and the Tories (and some Jacobites) before the election season. In A Spectacle of Corruption, Jewish thief taker Benjamin Weaver gets caught up in a web of conspiracies and convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Literally a web of conspiracies. There are so many plots and plans going on in this book that it takes a long time to get it all sorted out. I love books that keep me guessing all the way ’till the end.

The best part of this book is the history. I’d forgotten what a wild place the eighteenth century was. In high school, I learned about the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions that was about it. When I got to college, in my literature classes of all placed, I learned that there was a lot of things going on behind all those philosophers’ books. The eighteenth century was a crossroads between the Renaissance and the modern world. As the empire expanded and the industrial revolution was getting started, things ran ahead of the law and ethics and it was really easy for people to get trampled by progress.

Two things in particular struck me as I read through the book: the prisons and the election system. First, the prisons. Newgate prison was a prison for about 700 years. A lot of the people in jail were there because of debts. And the debts got bigger the longer they were in prison because the jailers charged people for better food, private cells, mail, privileges, etc. Prisons were hugely corrupt, but there was a pretty firm belief that prisons should be harsh to discourage recidivism. In reading up on prisons of the age, I learned that Newgate Prison was rebuilt in 1782 in the architecture terrible style that was design to psychologically intimidate and depress. Prison reform didn’t really get started until very late in the nineteenth century. It’s kind of shocking that it didn’t get started earlier, when there were people like Jonathan Wild around. Wild (who appears in the book) was an actual thief taker of the time. He was a bit more proactive than most people would expect. He actually paid thieves to break into people’s houses and then sold the victims’ belongings back to them. Not unsurprisingly, he could boast a pretty high recovery rate.

But the most interesting thing was the election system. Elections have been a part of the modern world for hundreds of years but universal suffrage has only been around for less than 100. In the eighteenth century, only men of property could vote. And not only were their votes courted with dinners and drink, but during election season, election managers and their agents would visit voters houses and take them out to the polls. Votes were sold for money or for favors. There were actually things like voting clubs which sold votes in bulk. Sometimes, election managers or their agents would arrange for people to riot at the polls or intimidate voters. Interestingly, there were two parties just like in the United States right now. Tories, the conservatives, and their opponents, the Whigs, who claimed to be progressive. Their brand of progressivism was still pretty conservative by modern standards.

In addition to all the great and interesting history, I have to say that the book is incredibly well written, too. David Liss is one of the few authors I’ve read that can really pull off writing in period style. He doesn’t just through arcane vocabulary and grammar around. He uses it naturally, without shouting at the reader. Not only is it well written, but it’s well plotted, too. What with the daring escapes and chases and disguises, I was hooked right from the beginning. Coupled with the mystery and the conspiracies, I was on tenterhooks the whole time. This book was a pleasure to read.