Edgar-winning Liss (The Ethical Assassin, 2006, etc.) channels early American history in a thickly plotted tale of conflicts between revolutionary idealism and fiscal skullduggery.
Readers of the author’s earlier thrillers starring Benjamin Weaver (A Spectacle of Corruption, 2004, etc.) will note resemblances between that amoral adventurer and this novel’s Philadelphia vagrant, Ethan Saunders. Once a captain (and spy) under George Washington’s command, Saunders has fallen on hard times. His duplicitous skills are solicited by the woman he loved and lost, Cynthia Pearson, whose husband’s endangered state is somehow connected to Federalist Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s creation of a national bank, intended to replace a traditional agrarian culture with one rooted in the quicksand of financial speculation. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative, farm girl Joan Claybrook, an autodidact who reads voraciously and dreams of composing the first truly American novel, marries war veteran Andrew Maycott and travels with him to the “western” territory of Pittsburgh, having exchanged payment owed him for military service for land that’s actually uncharted wilderness. Liss’s research gives the novel an impressive density, as well as a tendency to bog down in redundant declarations of cross-purposes. Hamilton’s threat to the young republic’s integrity and his widely loathed tax on whiskey set speculators against patriots and slowly—achingly slowly—connect Joan Maycott’s progress from sturdy pioneer to wronged woman to prosperous whiskey merchant to relentless avenger with Saunders’ cloak-and-dagger misadventures among the villains he’s hired to hunt down. Other characters include Saunders’ truculent slave Leonidas (“won” in a game of chance) and such luminaries as the complex and elusive Hamilton, poet Philip Freneau (who produces an influential partisan newspaper) and an aged, exhausted Washington.
Uneven, sometimes risibly overstuffed narrative that’s nevertheless compulsively readable.