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The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of…

The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief (original 1997; edition 1997)

by Ben MacIntyre

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3411132,414 (3.68)26
Title:The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief
Authors:Ben MacIntyre
Info:Farrar Straus & Giroux (T) (1997), Edition: 1st American ed., 1st Farrar, Straus and Giroux ed, Hardcover, 336 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

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The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, the Real Moriarty by Ben Macintyre (1997)



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For those newly interested in Sherlock Holmes due to the new movie, this is a fascinating book about the 19th century criminal mastermind upon whom Arthur Conan Doyle based Prof. Moriarity. Highly recommended for any fans of history, criminology, or Holmes fans. ( )
  SESchend | Sep 6, 2017 |
Good but not good enough to hold my interest. ( )
  ChrisNewton | Mar 18, 2016 |
This was a DNF for me. I like this type of history but prefer that we follow history chronologically. This one starts with on of the biggest thefts of all time and then goes back to early childhood, then bounces around at various stages before we get back to the original theft. Once I start having trouble tracking where I am in time in the story (from pickpocket to safe cracker, to mastermind) I tend to get frustrated and give up.Some of the history of the Pinkerton's was also interesting but it also went from the father, to the son, to the uncle and back. I needed a roadmap, or a chronology. ( )
1 vote bookswoman | Feb 2, 2016 |
I really like Ben Macintyre's style of writing, and this book was no exception. I had no idea that Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty character is largely based on Adam Worth, the globetrotting master thief that this book is about. He faked his own death in the Civil War, assumed a fake name, stole from countless banks and jewelers around the world, swiped a famous work of art, and ran an illegal gambling parlor in Paris, yet he was nonetheless extremely likeable.

The book reads a little bit like an "Ocean's 11" type of story - Adam Worth seemed to be able to steal anything he put his mind to stealing, but he somehow still appeared to be a decent man. He abhorred violence and refused to use weapons in the commission of his crimes, he was generous (to a fault), and he never stole from people who couldn't afford it. He had a bevy of thieves in his employ, some of whom he even sprang from prison, and he took good care of his brother (who was a fool but also an extortionist who preyed on Adam Worth's generosity and loyalty).

Ultimately, the book is a little sad, because I found myself liking Adam Worth, but his death was somewhat unremarkable and a little lonely, which I suppose is to be expected when you have lived an entirely dishonest life. His relationship with William Pinkerton, the famous detective, is also a little sad, because the friendship they developed later in life seemed borne out of the loneliness of two old men with more in common than you might think.

But overall, this is a fun and interesting read. Ben Macintyre has a very dry sense of humor that I love, which made the book that much more enjoyable. I highly recommend. ( )
  slug9000 | Feb 20, 2014 |
When I read a review of this in 1998 I immediately put it on my wish list. As a Sherlock Holmes fan how could I not want to read about the man that was possibly the model for Morriarty? (Quick wikipedia link for Worth for those who are impatient.) And so the book sat in my wish list, but didn't get purchased, because I was forever thinking it'd pop up in ebook form. Finally I gave up and just bought a paper copy, because sometimes you just have to hunt down books that have been on your list too long.

(Aside: I'll also blame the airlines for reading this in "fits and starts," because they always force me to take a paper book for those times where you have to put your ereader away. Grumble grumble, etc. etc.)

The book covers Worth's life of crime, the stories of his many associates and capers, and the theft of Thomas Gainsborough painting (this one) of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. That painting allows us to hear the history of Georgiana, which is still interesting, and continues to play a part in the Worth story as he developed strong feelings for it. And it's also the story of the continuing hunt by the Pinkerton detectives - not for where Worth was located (they always managed to track him down), but for a cause to arrest and charge him.

Short version (of what's to follow): the book could have used an editor for polish and tightening/removing a lot of redundant sentences. Thus the writing may make some readers frustrate/bored and skip over content to get to more interesting narrative. It is however a wonderful story and one that's not to be found elsewhere, only in small references in other books. This is really the only book that currently tells this story, and the personalities involved are fascinating.

My main critique is simply that here and there, the way the author's chosen to tell the story is a bit hard on the reader. For instance he often packs into the story quotes by contemporary authors. This in itself is not the problem (in fact I love period literature and journalism). The problem is how they're worked into the text.

For example, p 57:
"Victorian Britain was reaching the pinnacle of its greatness, and smugness. "The history of Britain is emphatically the history of progress," declared the intensely popular writer T.B. Macaulay at the dawn of the Victorian era. "The greatest and most highly civilized people that ever the world saw, have spread their domain over every quarter of the globe." A similar note of patriotic omnipotence was struck earlier in the century in an essay by the historian Thomas Carlyle: "We remove mountains and make seas our smooth highway, nothing can resist us. [I skip a sentence here, sorry Carlyle]"
...For a crook at war with the natural order, such heady recommendations were irresistible. Huge spoils, and the social elevation they brought with them, were precisely what Worth had in mind."Doesn't really flow well, does it? And of course we have no indication that Worth read/knew of either of those quoted authors, but that's a separate problem.

My other critique is that the author often repeats the same point in multiple sentences that don't necessary enlighten the point. For example, p. 92:"The Victorians' rediscovered enthusiasm for Georgiana was principally, if covertly, sexual: the chocolate-box coquetry of Gainsborough's portrait, when considered in conjunction with her racy reputation, was just the thing to send a delicious testosterone jolt through the average buttoned-down Victorian male. While they might appear repressed in sexual matters, a function of the fashion for strict outward probity, the Victorians were anything but frigid and knew a sex goddess when they saw one."This paragraph continues for several more sentences, with some newspaper quotes, all with the same information. If this were an isolated problem I'd not notice it, but the concept of Georgiana as a sex symbol was already emphasized paragraphs before this one, and mentioned again in paragraphs later. (And in other chapters as well.)

This really makes me wonder if Macintyre (the author) had an editor to help him (who might realize the repetition) or whether he felt that the story just needed more length (padding) and that this was the way to do it. Because restating something previously stated continues to occur. (Meanwhile I keep thinking that the phrase "sex goddess" should have been used at the beginning of the paragraph to give it more punch, otherwise it gets a bit lost. Because it's the takeaway thought.)

While these issues were something I noted, it didn't make me stop reading.

Random quotes, etc., that interested me (adding while reading, so in order, as usual):

...All this within the same paragraph, p. 74:"The contrast between outward protestations and actual behavior was particularly acute in the area of sexual morality, for while the prudish "official" line taken by most ethical commentators stressed home, hearth, and sex within marriage, or preferably not at all... The Victorians, it should be remembered, were the first to publish pornography on an industrial scale. ...If Worth held to a set of high-minded convictions that were utterly at variance with his actions, he was by no means alone. He would have enjoyed Wilde's ironic quip in The Importance of Being Earnest: "I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy." "Like 'Georgiana, sex goddess,' the phrase 'Victorians: industrial scale porn producers' is going to stick in my brain.

...I loved that a lady long dead could have such an effect on popular culture, p. 115:"If, before the theft, the Duchess [the painting] had achieved iconic status, now women positively wanted to be her. She became the haute-couture statement of the hour. The theft proved a blessing to London's hatmakers, since "at most of the public ceremonials a large proportion of the ladies dressed upon the model which the painting provided." Vast ostrich-feather hats became the rate on both sides of the Atlantic, and in New York "the Gainsborough hat...was so fashionable among women (that) one fashionable modiste went so far as to call it the 'Lady Devonshire style.'" "First quote in that paragraph was from the New York Herald of 1897, the second from the New York Sun of 1894. The history buff in me would have felt those quotes would have benefited more from acknowledging the source (not just in endnotes), since the author constantly quotes both period literature, news papers, and current histories throughout the book, and the reader isn't always made aware of the source of info. Which does tend to allow you to weigh what information is more valid. But then, the author does directly cite sources sometimes and I'm sure that doing so too often would break up the flow of the story.

...Thanks to the photos provided I really disagree about this, p.126:"Kitty Flynn was undoubted part of the key to Worth's change of heart... The former Irish barmaid and the late Duchess of Devonshire, whose piquant history was now enjoying a second lease on life after the theft, had many of the same character traits... The physical resemblance of the two woman was equally striking. The best portrait of Kitty shows her with a teasing, pouting expression which might have been borrowed directly from Georgiana."Looking at the photo of Kitty the author's referring to (this one, on this page) and the painting (this one) I can see no real resemblance. I can see a parallel in Kitty's duchess-like attitude, as the author portrays her, but I think any physical resemblance is wishful thinking.

...An example of the author bringing in contemporary literature, p. 147-148:"There is an uncanny resemblance in Worth's behavior, to that of Captain Nemo in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but whether the culture-hungry crook read the book, published ten years earlier, will never be known. Captain Nemo is the archetypal criminal aesthete whose gallery contained "thirty or so paintings by famous masters...a vertitable museum..."
[Skipping 3 sentences comparing Worth to Nemo]
...Where Verne's villain has his Nautilus and his sumptuous gallery to prove his superiority and rebellion, Worth had his false-bottomed trunk; where Nemo has thirty Old Masters, Worth had one."I really don't think this is a good quote for the situation - I mean, I can certainly see the parallels, but it's something I could see being discussed in a lit class, not relevant in a history text. Especially since there's no indication that Worth even read or knew of Verne, something the author admits in the first sentence.

Again, this is not the first time the author pulls a literary quote in a way that has very little/nothing to do with the history, isn't useful as background, and isn't useful to set the scene. Not a good way to use a literary quote.

...I feel like I'm being too critical - here's the type of info that makes me keep reading, p. 159:"The uncut diamonds, quickly divided and mounted to prevent them from being traced, were then sold just a few feet away from the scene of the crime...
...the robbery "had the effect of causing the authorities of the postal department to place in almost every post office the wire-net protection of the counters with which we are all familiar..." "Security measures changed all over the country due to Worth's methods in robbery, but also forgery and other scams. Definitely a noteworthy figure. Also continually amazing that he doesn't get caught.

...On page 212 the author mentions a 1945 book called Kitty, by Rosamond Marshall which makes a hash of Kitty Flynn's [Worth's one time girlfriend whom he fathered two children with and supposedly always loved] actual history but is apparently a bodice-ripper romance (and also a film). I stumbled into finding an copy you can read online via Open Library (here) and have now wandered too to read it (reviewing it here, spoiler, it is indeed very bad). (This is how I end up reading multiple books at once. I often just sort of wander into it.)

...Oddly my copy of the book doesn't have a table of contents. (Or does the book not have one? That makes no sense.) The important point here for Sherlock Holmes fans is that Chapter 23: Alias Moriarty is where you'll find that bit of pop culture history. This is actually the chapter I've really been waiting for. It refers to the many aspects of Moriarty inspired by Worth, and makes specific references to historic and academic figures who link the two. Also specific story references, such as, in The Valley of Fear, Moriarty has a picture hanging on his wall that Holmes notes is "a picture by Greuze entitled 'La Jeaune Fille a l'agneau,' fetched not less than four thousand pounds." While "a 'agneau" is French meaning either from Agneau or perhaps something about a lamb - there's also the pun of l'agneau/Agnew - the later name is the art dealer who owned the Duchess painting. And it was a pun popular elsewhere at the time. That and other hints in the story (as well as other stories) point to Moriarty as Worth. That's one example - the chapter is short but for Holmes fans is definitely of interest. Sadly it's too short. For all the literary quotes elsewhere I'd have thought this chapter might be a tad longer.

And still unsure about the reference(p. 229) to Worth as T.S. Eliot's cat Macavity - but I guess everything with a "Napoleon of Crime" tag could lead back to Worth. Maybe.

...Boy do I dislike some of Worth's family members (brother and sister-in-law). You can't be religious and deride the man on one hand for being a crook and then at the same time tell him he has to give you money or you'll abandon his kids that you're taking care of for him.

...In the William Pinkerton-Adam Worth relationship, which should be adversarial, there's a continuing theme of respect between the two men. One of the best parts of this story - especially since it happens to be true.

...Worth and J. Pierpont Morgan, p. 263: "They never met but their lives were eerie echos of each other..." - Like some of the other comparisons, this only seems true for some of the points made in this chapter.

...p. 275 - Apparently Henry James' final novel, The Outcry, has a wealthy American, Breckenridge Bender, buying a family portrait called the Duchess of Waterbridge by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which doesn't exist in reality and is supposed to be a reference to the Duchess of Devonshire (Georgina) painting bought by Morgan. James was upset with Morgan and other Americans carrying off famous British artwork that he felt should remain within the country, and the book was his protest. (Another book for the To Read list.) ( )
  bookishbat | Sep 25, 2013 |
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Book description
Finally, the truth behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty! He wasn't entirely from the author's imagination, but was fashioned after an American-born German Jew who robbed banks then reinvented himself as a gentleman of distinction and mingled freely with the swells whose money he stole.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385319932, Paperback)

Arthur Conan Doyle fictionalized him as the superhuman Professor Moriarty, and the popular press luridly chronicled his daring heists, though the police never managed to convict him of anything major until he was nearly 50. Forgotten since his 19th-century heyday, master thief Adam Worth (1844-1902) gets a contemporary dusting-off in this cheerfully cynical biography by a British journalist, who sees Worth's story as a case study in Victorian hypocrisy. The colorful New York and London underworlds are as meticulously described as Worth's surprisingly attractive personality.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:46 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

The Victorian era's most infamous thief, Adam Worth was the original Napoleon of crime. Worth learned early that the best way to succeed was to steal. And steal he did. Following a strict code of honor, Worth won the respect of Victorian society. He also aroused its fear by becoming a chilling phantom, mingling undetected with the upper classes, whose valuables he brazenly stole. His most celebrated heist: Gainsborough's grand portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire--ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales--a painting Worth adored and often slept with for twenty years.With a brilliant gang that included "Piano" Charley, a jewel thief, train robber, and playboy, and "the Scratch" Becker, master forger, Worth secretly ran operations from New York to London, Paris, and South Africa--until betrayal and a Pinkerton man finally brought him down. In a decadent age, Worth was an icon. His biography is a grand tour into the gaslit underworld of the last century. . . and into the doomed genius of a criminal mastermind.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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