Copyright © 2009, Steven E. Houchin
The Coffee Trader is set in Amsterdam in 1659. It tells the story of Miguel Lienzo, a trader at the town's raucous commodities exchange. In the opening chapter, we learn that Miguel is badly in debt due to a collapse in the sugar market. This problem haunts him throughout the book as he dodges his creditors, handles family dissention, and solicits new partners to reverse his misfortunes. As a Portuguese Jew, he is a second-class citizen in Gentile Amsterdam, and is subject to ethical scrutiny by the Ma'mad, the local Jewish council. A bitter rival, who is a member of the Ma'mad, seeks to ensnare him in some scandal and haul him before the council for punishment. With all this turmoil surrounding him, Miguel stumbles upon a new, exotic commodity that might restore his fortunes: coffee.
What makes this book great is that it maintains a sense of growing intrigue and mystery without the usual "corpse and detective" story line. The characters are well developed and believable. Miguel is no heroic protagonist; he plots and schemes, seduces the chambermaid, manipulates other traders, and makes promises he likely can't keep. But the reader is drawn to his vulnerability and precarious situation. He must keep up appearances of success while penniless and living in his disapproving brother's dank basement. Along the way, you never know who will betray whom, and whether Miguel's scheme to manipulate the coffee market will succeed or ruin him.
The Coffee Trader starts out a bit slow, but soon has you eagerly turning the page. It also does an excellent job of transporting your mind's eye to 17th century Amsterdam.