The Coffee Trader

The Coffee Trader

By David Liss

David Liss’s second novel was so spanking new that the bookshop where I bought it (Atheneum in Amsterdam) couldn’t find it in their computers. I bought it because I was intrigued by the first few pages I read, and by the what the blurb uncovered about the plot. Was it a good buy?

  • Author: David Liss
  • Title: The Coffee Trader
  • Pages: 389
  • Published: 2003
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN: 0-8129-7032-2


I’ll first do a small synopsis of the plot… The Coffee Trader is set in Golden Age Amsterdam, amongst the community of Portegiezen — the Portuguese Jews who had fled from persecution in Portugal and Spain. They live by trading on the Amsterdam Exchange, one of the first and the most important in the world of the times. A Jewish merchant, Miguel Lienzo, has just lost his fortune in a sugar speculation and now gets handed the idea of trading in coffee, a new commodity. Two people want him to trade in coffee: a Dutch outlaw woman, and a Jewish outcast money lender. His intrigues pit him against a vengeful Jewish collegue, Solomon Parido. Much intrigue follows.

This is David Liss’s second novel; his first was about the Jews at the exchange in London. This does not speak well for the author’s imagination. I mean, staying in your genre is all very well, but this is a bit too samey for my tastes.

But he’s done his research, I won’t say he didn’t. Page after page we are treated to barely disguised infodumps about the workings of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the structure of the Portuguese Jewish community, the power of the Oostindische Compagnie. We get lots of Amsterdam colour locale. I’m fairly certain that most of his details are right.

That’s not to say that there aren’t major howlers. In the first few pages we get Miguel going to the Damplatz. The only time De Dam has been a platz was between 1940 and 1945. Hah! I nearly threw the book out of the train when I read that.

Some of the characters are very well done. Geertruid Damhuis, Miguel’s brother’s wife Hannah. Others never go much beyond your default rogue, like Alferonda. Miguel himself is a difficult case. It’s very, very clear that the author considers him a clever, likable man, a devout Jew, a charitable, even noble man. To me, he was merely a compulsive skirt-lifter and a fool with his money. I really couldn’t understand why he was so popular.

The book itself suffers not only from frequent infodumps, but also from a pedestrian writing style — in places. In other places, David Liss manages to be genuinely moving. Sometimes, especially in the more pedestrian places I found myself mentally editing — those places were much reminiscent of my own first-draft writing.

So, in the end, because parts of it were excellent, and because I find it useful to know how an early exchange works, it was a good buy. But I wish it were better.

Currently reading: Multatuli, Max Havelaar, John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting, Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth, John Dickson Carr, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, E.R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison, Freeman Wills Crofts, Golden Ashes, P.C Hooft, Warenar, Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon, E.R. Eddison, Mistress of Mistresses, Homerus, Kikvorsenmuizenstrijd.

Just discarded: nothing yet, although I’m pretty sure that I won’t finish The Emperor’s Snuff Box.