Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Books! (and the rule of Ben Macintyre)

Here's an excellent rule about books that has never been wrong: buy anything written by Ben Macintyre.

Think I'm kidding? All of these books are riveting:
1. Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
2. Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
3. The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan
4. Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche

Each of these is a brilliant book in its own right, and fortunately, I found one more recently: The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief. Worth was considered the greatest thief of the 19th century, a title that was well-earned, and was the inspiration for the character of Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes series of novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

One of the many things that Macintyre does well is to create a sense of time and place, and in The Napoleon of Crime, he draws a vivid portrait of both a swindler and a period of time that was lush for swindling.

Many of the details of Adam Worth's "career" made me laugh out loud with their sheer audacity. Rent a building, create a false storefront, dig a tunnel to a bank next door, and break through to rob the bank bare? No problem.

Yes, people have done that before, but they didn't do it before Worth.

His crimes were outrageous, but his friendships, even more so. In the later years of his life, perhaps his best friend was none other than William Pinkerton, a twist that would be dismissed as ridiculous in a work of fiction.

Fiction can only be so strange, but life, so much more. Macintyre is adept at finding and preserving this strangeness.

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