The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, The Real Moriarty by Ben Macintyre
Harper Press 2012
Reviewed by Adrian Middleton
Historian and Times columnist Ben Macintyre has earned himself a niche focusing on war, crime and espionage, with best sellers including Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat. In the wake of his popularity, 2012 saw the rerelease of his second such book,The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, The Real Moriarty (originally published in 1997).
Worth’s modern fame lies in being the primary inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, who appropriated Worth’s title, his criminal genius and his penchant for valuable artworks, and Macintyre’s book is the most comprehensive publication available, becoming a much sought-after resource by Sherlockians and Victorian historians alike.
While Macintyre regales us with an inspiring visit into the bowels if the Pinkerton archives, many of the sources he draws upon come from elsewhere, and it is clear that this book is an early work by a writer still learning his craft. While in some cases he goes to great lengths to cite his sources, in others he neglects to quote them – and these are often the most important sources required by the narrative, as they are those which are flavour to the assertions made by the author throughout the book. Indeed, many of Macintyre’s assumptions and conclusions seem contradicted by the detail, and he often grasps at the possible significance of these often unfounded ideas to drive his story forwards.
The facts themselves are fairly straightforward, but the book feels like an episode of Just a Minute, filled with repetitions and deviations. For now it is the definitive volume on Worth’s life, although it could have been half the length and delivered twice the impact. By the end it left me feeling that the next person to tackle the subject might benefit from the hindsight Macintyre’s foray offers, and perhaps put more meat, and less fat, on the bones. His later books are slicker and more effective, and for such a significant book I would hope that he gets the chance to revisit, revise and reissue it as a new and improved edition. It would certainly benefit more than as an unaltered reissue.
Of Worth himself we are given the portrait of a gentleman thief whose exploits are more respected than reviled, and whose tastes for the high life set him amongst the gentry, even earning the admin ration of William, the chief Pinkerton, whose encounter with conan Doyle is said to have inspired Moriarty’s appearance, and whose anger at Doyle’s appropriation of the detail without attribution seems overstated.
Perhaps the most anticipated chapter – that relates to Moriarty’s origin and to the elements of Worth’s career that Doyle appropriates – is painfully short and unsatisfying, in spite of being one of the most thorough pieces available today.