I became enchanted with the books of David Liss ever since one of the staff at Rainy Day Books put a copy of The Coffee Trader in my hand. (The staff at Rainy Day are the masked Tibetan kung-fu monks of reader’s advisory, as far as I’m concerned. One day I hope to be that good.) I quickly moved on to his other books, the wonderful A Conspiracy of Paper – which you may have seen recommended on a book club list or two – and the only slightly less brilliant A Spectacle of Corruption.
These three books are historical mysteries, set within the bustling city of
Amsterdam during the 18th and 17thcenturies. The concept of the stock market is emerging, money is constantly changing hands, and double-dealers and scam artists are common. It’s a place where Ken Lay would have fit right in. The plots in these books are right out of the 1930s pulp noir tradition, where our heroes have to sort out murders while facing obstacles and corruption at every turn, with shady characters and femme fatales in his path. It’s all great stuff, and the historical detail of the time just adds to it. Also, the main characters are Jewish, and solving whatever mysteries while adhering to the canonical laws from their religion and culture and dealing with the prejudices from the outside community is perfect for building conflict and tension and it works wonderfully.
With his new book, The Ethical Assassin, Liss veers away from the historical format and writes a modern-day thriller full of seedy, eccentric characters deep in the backwoods of
Florida, sort of like a Carl Hiaasen novel. The difference here is that Carl Hiaasen is actually funny; Liss tries to do his best, but the plot of a methodical and honorable hitman who teams up with a fast-talking teenaged slacker goes nowhere. There are scenes of violence laced with quippage that’s supposed to be ironic – like a Tarantino film – but instead it falls flat. I couldn’t even tell you how it ends, because I gave up after a hundred pages. I didn’t want to give up on the book just because it wasn’t like his previous historical mysteries, but it wasn’t doing anything for me. So I still gave up on it, I just felt guilty about it.
David Liss is still young and has plenty of novels ahead of him – I hope he learns from this one and moves on. And meanwhile, give Coffee Trader or A Conspiracy of Paper a shot if you like your mysteries highbrow with a touch of noir.