Ben Macintyre’s enthusiasm for larger-than-life historical figures is evident once again in this biography of Adam Worth, one of the most notorious thieves and con artists of the late 19th century. Worth began his criminal career as a pickpocket but soon established himself as a gang leader, gaining notoriety through planning a series of successful bank jobs. Eventually Worth set up shop in London, where he created a public persona as a wealthy English gentleman, which he was able to maintain for decades even while continuing his criminal activities. His crowning achievement was the theft of Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Worth’s criminal genius, plus his short stature, prompted a Scotland Yard detective to dub him the “Napoleon of the criminal world” — a phrase famously used to describe the ultimate fictional criminal mastermind, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.
I’m a big fan of Ben Macintyre’s books about World War II-era espionage, so I was excited to try this book even though it has a different subject matter. I’m not sure if it was the different focus or the fact that I was extremely busy in real life at the time, but I just couldn’t get into this book the same way I did with Operation Mincemeat, for example. I think Macintyre overstates his thesis, which is that Worth was the real-life inspiration for Moriarty; the evidence that exists really doesn’t seem very conclusive. Also, he focuses a lot on Worth’s theft of the Gainsborough painting and engages in some psychological speculation about Worth’s supposed obsession, which according to Macintyre had a sexual component. In this area, there really seems to be NO evidence supporting the book’s claims! I did find the interactions between Worth and William Pinkerton (yes, one of those Pinkertons) to be very interesting and would have loved the book to focus more on that relationship. Overall, the book is entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.