Book in the news: masterly biography of an economic adventurer

John Law: A Scottish Adventurer of the Eighteenth Century
by James Buchan
MacLehose Press (£30)

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To say that John Law led a colourful life is an understatement. A gambler, financier and early economist, he advised the French on the reorganisation of their monetary system, but died a poor man after his involvement in what became known as the Mississippi Bubble. This biography by James Buchan looks at his life and career and is full of “Jacobite politics, elopements, prison breaks and court scandal”, says James Kelly in The Scotsman. So “even a reader who might sigh at the thought of a book on ‘the dismal science’ will find much to savour”.

Indeed, one of the flaws of the book is that the author “is curiously uninterested in the actual substance of Law’s ideas on money and finance, and in the parallels between Law’s experiment and the financial world of today”, says Felix Martin in the FT. However, it remains a “masterly” biography. Law has “at last found a biographer who combines an expert understanding of finance, a profound knowledge of 18th-century history, and a novelist’s gift for anecdote and pace”. It “will take its place deservedly as the standard biography”.

There are times when the author’s fondness for genealogy “leads him down sidetracks that serve at best to bewilder and at worst to bore”, says Lucy Hughes-Hallett in the New Statesman, and the narrative sometimes “becomes tangled in a mass of extraneous anecdote”. However, Buchan is “also capable of pithiness” and his wit is “delightful”. Overall, this “erudite, elegantly written” book is like “a successful party” – “full of interesting people, variously disgraceful or brilliant, and of compelling stories overlapped”.