The Devil’s Company: David Liss

Published by Ballantine Books, 2009, 369 pages.

This is a gripping story set in 18th century London. Thief-taker[1] Benjamin Weaver is asked by a mysterious man called Cobb to carry out a dangerous assignment. When Weaver declines, Cobb resorts to other means. He threatens three people close to Weaver with destitution unless Weaver agrees to Cobb’s demands.

Weaver’s first assignment is to break into the heavily guarded offices of the East India Company. Once there, he is to steal a document on the import of Indian cloth into Britain from the desk of Ambrose Ellershaw, a director of the Company. Weaver is then asked to contact Ellershaw, and say he has found the stolen document.

Ellershaw is delighted at recovering the document. He hires Weaver, ostensibly to oversee the Company’s warehouse workers.

But Ellershaw has another agenda. The Court of Proprietors (the Company’s board) is meeting, and Ellershaw is convinced that he will be sacked. He wants Weaver to help him pull off a coup that will prevent this from happening.

In the meantime, Cobb wants Weaver to get information on the death of a man named Absalom Pepper. But Weaver is not to mention Pepper’s name nor make any enquiries.

Everything that Weaver does, even the conversations he thinks are private, seem to get back to Cobb. So who is Cobb? He is clearly rich but no one seems to have heard of him, although a rich man in London would normally be well-known. Also, rich households have domestic staff but Cobb only has one unpleasant manservant, Edgar.

And then there is Celia Glade, a maid in the East India Company offices. Weaver soon realizes that she is playing a role and has her own agenda. But is she a friend or foe? Or, perhaps, a French spy?

Weaver tries to juggle with keeping both Cobb and Ellershaw reasonably satisfied so that he can continue with his own enquiries and turn the tables on both men. The more Weaver discovers, the more complicated it gets: he is in world of shadows and mirrors. However, the lives of three people depend on Weaver, so he has to tread carefully.

David Liss brings the period to life, with vivid descriptions. Benjamin Weaver—Jewish, ex-pugilist, thief-taker—is a wonderful creation.

This is an interesting period in British history. Compared to the rest of Europe, Britain at the time was a safe haven for Jews. This meant they could live, work and practice their religion in the country, but were not accepted socially. For example, Ellershaw invites Weaver to his house for a small dinner party only because he considers Weaver useful in helping him achieve his own ends: to ensure that the East India Company can continue to import Indian fabrics into Britain.

The Company’s import of Indian textiles had been putting local weavers out of business. One of the main threads of the novel is the legislation of 1721 that aimed to protect British weavers by prohibiting the wearing of Indian textiles, which would result in great financial loss for the Company.

This is a tale of espionage, greed and betrayal. The Company had a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness and would stop at nothing. The book is called The Devil’s Company for a reason.

This is a modern novel, but the language that Liss uses has enough of a flavour of the 18th century to make it feel like it was written then. The pace never flags and I was completely absorbed. This is not the first novel I’ve read by Liss, and so far, I haven’t been disappointed. If you’re looking for an intelligent thriller, I would recommend this.

Buy from USA

Read the Talking About Books interview with David Liss.

[1] An individual hired to capture criminals, before the establishment of a regular police force in Britain.

4 thoughts on “The Devil’s Company: David Liss

  1. Jonathan David Liss

    Excellent review of a novel that refused to be put down until finished. It’s amazing how Liss manages to tell a gripping story while subtly giving fascinating information about 18th Century England.
    CAN WE PLEASE HAVE ANOTHER BENJAMIN WEAVER STORY? This character is too good not to see again.
    My name is Jonathan David Liss and I am not the author or a relative, just a fan.

  2. Pingback: Travelling Back in Time: An Interview with David Liss – Talking About Books

  3. Pingback: The Best Books of 2022 – Talking About Books

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