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The Whiskey Rebelsby David Liss
Synopses & Reviews
David Liss's bestselling historical thrillers, including A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader, have been called remarkable and rousing: the perfect combination of scrupulous research and breathless excitement. Now Liss delivers his best novel yet in an entirely new setting — America in the years after the Revolution, an unstable nation where desperate schemers vie for wealth, power, and a chance to shape a country's destiny.
Ethan Saunders, once among General Washington's most valued spies, now lives in disgrace, haunting the taverns of Philadelphia. An accusation of treason has long since cost him his reputation and his beloved fiancée, Cynthia Pearson, but at his most desperate moment he is recruited for an unlikely task — finding Cynthia's missing husband. To help her, Saunders must serve his old enemy, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who is engaged in a bitter power struggle with political rival Thomas Jefferson over the fragile young nation's first real financial institution: the Bank of the United States.
Meanwhile, Joan Maycott is a young woman married to another Revolutionary War veteran. With the new states unable to support their ex-soldiers, the Maycotts make a desperate gamble: trade the chance of future payment for the hope of a better life on the western Pennsylvania frontier. There, amid hardship and deprivation, they find unlikely friendship and a chance for prosperity with a new method of distilling whiskey. But on an isolated frontier, whiskey is more than a drink; it is currency and power, and the Maycotts' success attracts the brutal attention of men in Hamilton's orbit, men who threaten to destroy all Joan holds dear.
As their causes intertwine, Joan and Saunders — both patriots in their own way — find themselves on opposing sides of a daring scheme that will forever change their lives and their new country. The Whiskey Rebels is a superb rendering of a perilous age and a nation nearly torn apart — and David Liss's most powerful novel yet.
"Set in and around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York City in the years after the Revolutionary War, this clever thriller from Liss (The Ethical Assassin) follows the adventures of Ethan Saunders, once a valiant spy for General Washington, who's fallen on hard times by war's end. Suspected of treason, Ethan has lost the love of his life, Cynthia, who's married the fiendish Jacob Pearson, an entrepreneur who managed to prosper during the British occupation of Philadelphia. At Cynthia's urging, Ethan agrees to go looking for the missing Jacob, prompted in large part by a desire to redeem his reputation. Meanwhile, the so-called whiskey rebels on the western frontier are trying to bring down the hated Alexander Hamilton and his Bank of the United States. The courageous Ethan is a likable rogue, and even though Ethan spends too much time delving into the complications of 18th-century finance, he can be counted on when the chips are down and the odds against him soar." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
If timing really is everything, David Liss should have himself a best-seller. His new book, "The Whiskey Rebels," revolves around the resentment of Western libertarians toward Eastern elites, a plot to bring down the nation's financial system and a scandal that threatens the federal government. Sound familiar? Everything old is new again. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was a seminal... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) moment in American history, despite its faintly derisive name. For the first time, the national government showed itself willing to assert its authority, sending an army against rebellious frontiersmen in western Pennsylvania. George Washington his uniform back on and led the troops, becoming the only president in our history to serve as commander in chief in the field (assuming, of course, that one doesn't count W. on the carrier deck in his "Mission Accomplished" jumpsuit). Wisely, Liss decided not to write about the military action itself, which was the definition of anticlimactic: a handful of rebels rounded up, then pardoned, with hardly a shot fired in anger. Instead, his historical novel is about the financial shenanigans surrounding it. The rebellion was sparked when Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant first secretary of the Treasury, looked to finance the federal government — and especially his controversial First Bank of the United States — with an excise tax on the distillation of whiskey. This infuriated the cash-poor Western farmers, who relied on their home brew as an improvised currency, and who already despised the federal government for failing to help with their main preoccupations, namely killing Indians and building decent roads and waterways to bring their crops to Eastern markets. Hamilton judged the bank essential to establishing the United States as a serious country, but his efforts set off a veritable "bank mania" in the financial markets of Philadelphia and New York, as well as a rash of financial skullduggery that threatened to bring the nation's precarious new economy crashing down upon his head. This is an all-too-neglected period in American history, and especially historical fiction, but Liss is on familiar ground. Among his previous four books is the Edgar Award-winning "A Conspiracy of Paper," set during England's notorious "South Sea bubble" — the world's first true stock market crash — and he is adept at explicating the intricacies of 18th-century finance. "The Whiskey Rebels" is told through two first-person narrators: Joan Maycott, a Pennsylvania widow who has lost everything she cared about, thanks to the shenanigans of greedy land speculators spurred on by Hamilton's tax and bank schemes; and Ethan Saunders, a disgraced spy from the Revolution who has also hit rock bottom and is now a witty drunk staggering through the rum pits of 1790s Philadelphia. This seems like a promising set-up: the cynical, down-and-out man of mystery still nursing his broken heart, crossing paths with a desperate woman employed in a noble cause (see "Casablanca"). Unfortunately, it takes much too long for that encounter to come about; imagine "Casablanca" if Ingrid Bergman didn't reach Morocco until the final reel. Maycott's story is mostly her background, which at least provides us with a compelling look into the terrors and drudgeries of the early American frontier. Saunders, trying to unravel a growing mystery in the capital that has imperiled his lost love, is supposed to impress us with his spycraft but instead takes us on what becomes a very long slog from tavern to government office to dining room and back again, over and over. Nor is Liss able to really prod his characters to life. All of his good people favor all good things, in keeping with our contemporary sensibilities. They despise greed, tyranny, dishonesty, prevarication, anti-Semitism and racism even when — in Saunders' case — they own a slave. This is a common dilemma in historical fiction — who wants a hero who, say, feels African-Americans are inferior? — but it is not a dilemma that Liss resolves. Saunders' brave, private-eye patter is often funny. Here he is taunting an antagonist with a beautiful wife: "It cannot be easy to have convinced such a gem to marry a man of your stripe." "She's a slut. ..." "Well ... that is good news." But such comedy only serves to undermine what is supposed to be his character's despair; we never believe that Saunders is all that down, much less out. Joan Maycott's story is better, but she is so modern as to stretch credibility, even trying to write the great American novel out on the frontier. She is also given to windy, impromptu speeches about true patriotism, and her elaborate plot to avenge herself on Hamilton and his bank — one that she persuades a large portion of the frontier population to join her in — is preposterous. Supporting characters fade in and out, including an almost superhuman agent/hit man for Hamilton, a sort that is fast becoming a stock character in American fiction. Important historical personages, such as Jefferson, Washington, Robert Morris, Philip Freneau and Aaron Burr, also make appearances, but they rarely serve to do more than push the lugubrious plot along. Liss has obviously done impressive research, yet even this breaks down at times. At one point someone is asked, "How much do you need to make this go away?" sounding more Godfather than Founding Father. And his characters conceal so many "primed pistols" on their persons that in reality they would surely have blown off many critical pieces of anatomy. Liss does redeem his story somewhat with a dramatic, blood-and-thunder ending. Best of all, though, he has his characters present both sides of the arguments about Hamilton and his bank. Historians have long tended to oscillate between those twin poles of American thought, Hamilton and Jefferson, strong national government and states' rights, depending upon the vagaries of political fashion. Liss manages to see both sides. Now that is something new, and worth reading. Kevin Baker is the author, most recently, of the historical novel "Strivers Row." Reviewed by Kevin Baker, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Liss brings it all together in the end, uniting multiple narrators and different time lines in a bravura finish....A raucous mix of historical fiction and action-adventure thriller." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Liss portrays post-Revolutionary Philadelphia and New York more effectively than he does the western Pennsylvania frontier...but this detracts only slightly from a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Recommended." Library Journal
"Uneven, sometimes risibly overstuffed narrative that's nevertheless compulsively readable." Kirkus Reviews
From the bestselling, award-winning author of A Conspiracy of Paper comes his most powerful historical mystery yet. Set in post-Revolutionary War America, The Whiskey Rebels is a superb rendering of a vivid and perilous age.
About the Author
David Liss is the author of A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, and A Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, as well as The Ethical Assassin. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children.
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