Review

The Whiskey Rebels

by David Liss

After writing his first contemporary novel, THE ETHICAL
ASSASSIN, Edgar Award winner David Liss is back on more comfortable
ground with another exceptional piece of historical fiction, THE
WHISKEY REBELS. For the first time, Liss is exploring America's
past, an interesting challenge for an author who has focused on
more obscure topics like England's 18th-century Exchange Alley or
immigrant Jewish farmers in 17th-century Amsterdam. Here he tackles
the early days of the American adventure in a surprisingly timely
tale of corrupt and unethical bank speculators who almost bring
down the fledgling country's new financial institution --- the Bank
of the United States.

THE WHISKEY REBELS begins in 1792 with two alternating
protagonists. The first chapter is narrated by Captain Ethan
Saunders, a formerly dashing and daring spy for General Washington,
who has fallen on hard times and now scrapes by on the streets,
seducing wealthy women and spending what money he can scrounge on
hard drink with hard men. Saunders gets a second chance in life
after being branded a traitor and banished from civilized society.
He still has valuable skills, and when his lost love needs him once
again, he helps the new government he fought to establish smoke out
a conspiracy against the nation's banking system.

The second chapter is narrated by Joan Maycott, a well-educated
prospective novelist who journeys with her husband from the
civilized eastern seaboard into the untamed west --- Pennsylvania.
Maycott's story is the tale of the hardened men and women who
played such a vital roll in taming the undeveloped country. Liss
does a superb job here, making it clear just how difficult life on
the frontier really was. Clearing the land and making a living were
the least of the Maycotts' problems. They also had to deal with
dishonest businessmen and even American Indians unhappy about being
pushed further and further west.

Each chapter alternates between the two well-drawn and
compelling characters until the disparate stories collide at the
end of the novel. THE WHISKEY REBELS is historical fiction at its
very best. Liss inserts the reader right in the middle of
post-Revolutionary War America and makes them feel right at home.
The time period is vividly recreated, and the fictional Saunders
and Maycott mingle seamlessly with real historical figures like
Alexander Hamilton, William Duer and even the great George
Washington himself.

Historical thrillers like this are often flawed works, falling
short either on period details or failing to create a compelling
story that moves the characters naturally through an otherwise
well-crafted set piece. Liss is among the genre's best writers. The
story not only has a compulsively readable plot and believable
historical details, the author also has a knack for creating
wonderful period dialogue. The characters in THE WHISKEY REBELS
sound like real people, but real people from the 1700s, a
noteworthy accomplishment.

Liss is a special writer, and this is his best novel yet. At
first glance, a story about bankers, speculators and taxes doesn't
sound like a very exciting thriller, but he explains the early
banking system clearly without awkward exposition. Greedy banking
speculators are central to the plot, making Liss one of the only
people in America to profit from our current financial crisis. THE
WHISKEY REBELS is a timely tale that makes it clear that East Coast
bankers throwing the country's financial institutions into chaos is
nothing new.

Reviewed by Jonathan Snowden on January 24, 2011

The Whiskey Rebels
by David Liss

  • Publication Date: June 16, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0812974530
  • ISBN-13: 9780812974539