The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief, by Ben MacIntyre, Farrar Strauss & Giroux. $24, hardback.
The art of biography has recently reached a popularity of almost faddish proportions. Americans are putting down their novels in favour of biographies and docu-dramas. We now crave, more than ever, not fiction, but fact that seems fictional.
In a recent addition to the biography craze, Ben MacIntyre’s The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief, chronicles the life of one of America and Britain’s most celebrated thieves. Worth was a criminal of small physical stature (hence the ‘Napoleon’ of Crime) but of great repute during the Victorian age. Born into a German-American Jewish family, Worth began his criminal career by jumping bounty. He joined regiment in the U.S. Army under an assumed name, collected whatever bounty was offered, and quickly deserted, repeating the process both in the North and in the Confederacy.
At the completion of the war, Worth moved to New York City where, he became a small-time pickpocket, quickly moving his way up the ranks of the New York underworld. Once he had established himself as part of the upper echelon of criminals, he moved on to bank robbery. After a particularly successful heist, he fled to London to live as a dandy, stealing in his spare time.
While Worth was an extremely competent thief, it was his personality that gained him his notoriety. Worth was a gentleman’s criminal, never carrying a weapon of any kind, always dressing to perfection, and living the lifestyle of a true London gentleman. In addition to his lavish attire, Worth was an articulate and self-educated man who was often seen at the best London parties. He was so renowned as a master criminal, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fashioned the fictional master criminal, Moriarty, after him.
MacIntyre begins Worth’s story with a masterfully written account of his celebrated theft of the portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire. This opening chapter is truly a piece of biography that reads as fiction and seems larger than life.
MacIntyre is the current Paris bureau chief for the London Times and author of Forgotten Fatherland: The Search For Elisabeth Nietzche. Unfortunately, at times MacIntyre’s journalistic style begins to show. By opting to stick with the harder facts of his life, MacIntyre often does not allow Worth’s personality to fully shine through in the text. MacIntyre’s writing is at its best when he is describing specific scenes or crimes. An instance of this is MacIntyre’s detailed description of Worth’s rise through the New York underworld, and of the frightening, colourful, and at times, comical criminals working in the New York area. This portion of the text is a joy to read as MacIntyre slips into a more exuberant style and forgets his journalistic code.
David J. Connell