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Book Review: The Coffee Trader by David Liss

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Stop and sell the coffee. And buy, speculate, circulate rumors, dump stock, trade in futures, flood the market.

For those who like a little social and economic history with their coffee, David Liss’ novel is suggestive of something between a gourmet la-de-da latte and a greasy-spoon’s industrial-strength dishwater-in-a-drum. Not the same old grind, perhaps, but also not grounds for wholehearted celebration.

Still, the premise and setting of The Coffee Trader is unique, with smaller-scale historical detail as richly rewarding as Liss’ remarkable first work, A Conspiracy of Paper, a 2000 Edgar Award-winning murder mystery set amid the world of 18th-century British finance. With this second work, Liss omits the murder, but retains an exploration of Jewish and Christian interaction while playing up a little mercantile mystery in the Amsterdam of 1659, a time and place of refuge for many European Jews trying to escape the Inquisition.

It’s also the time and place of the world’s first commodities exchange, replete with scheming, deception and all kinds of secret negotiations, and Machiavellian machinations and manipulations.

Although the shift in the sugar trade has left the Portuguese Jew Miguel Lienzo, a once-prosperous trader, debt-ridden and living in his overbearing brother’s basement, it doesn’t long deter him from trying to climb back up the social ladder. So when Geertruid Damhoulder, an attractive and enterprising widow, somewhat suspiciously and inexplicitly seeks him out for a partnership and plans to monopolize the market in coffee beans — an untested and unfamiliar product to most Europeans — Miguel thinks he sees a way to ascend, and not necessarily rung by rung.

Not that it’s going to be easy, with all the emerging monetary maneuvering, paranoia-inducing plots and counterplots, and associates who may not be all that they seem. “You must remember to be careful,” a friend who may or may not be a friend tells Miguel. “Coffee is a drink that brings out great passions in men, and you may be unlocking great forces if you trifle with it.”

Indeed, political, personal, religious and societal forces hinder Miguel’s progress. Further barriers include duplicitous competitors, cash that ebbs more than flows, a cunning and vengeful pillar of the community, and deadly threats from a mysterious source. At the same time, Miguel faces the scrutiny and possible punitive measures from the draconian Ma’amad, the Jewish regulatory council set up to oversee the actions and dealings of the Jews within their new Dutch home.

Still, Miguel believes he can turn the tables at any time (and in the course of which win the heart of the put-upon wife of his brother), for he has a foolproof, if wide-scale and complex, plan — “all coordination, orchestration” — that, with the help of Geertruid’s capital, will corner the European market for coffee, making all the short-term obstacles and problems worth the effort.

Readers of Coffee Trader may feel otherwise. Liss is effective in conjuring up or conveying the degree of religious tolerance and civic dynamism within this cosmopolitan center of world trade, lending apt ambience and credence to the contention that “Amsterdam rose to its place of greatness because of the sheer determination of its citizens.” But the considerable back-stories and off-putting Byzantine nature of the subplots and developments undercut the momentum of the suspense and tension, creating a continuous jump-track narrative. And while the same digressions diminish thematic concerns over such issues as trust and greed, they also detract from the consideration of the cultural clashes or accommodations taking place between old traditions and a newer world of commerce.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • jj

    this book is interesting, and tells a good story of mysery, and betrayal, But honestly at times it can get a bit slow and boring. And also a little bit confusing.