Pinning down the Prince of Tricksters

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Matt Houlbrook

So what’s it about then?

Good question.


It doesn’t get any easier to explain what Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook is about. How do you reduce a book to a couple of sentences when the clock is ticking and someone is looking at you sceptically?

This is a book about a prolific storyteller, and the power of his stories to both evoke and unsettle the world in which he told them…

This is also a book about Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, and how Lucas’s stories offer a guide – unreliable, yet more revealing for that – to a world undergoing far-reaching change.

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The easy option: copy-and-paste here, quote myself parrot-like at a coffee shop table.


It is a good question and a difficult question.

Prince of Tricksters tells a story about a life: a smooth-talking confidence trickster; an ersatz aristocrat – the Right Honourable Basil Vaughan; a Borstal boy and down-and-out; a confessing ex-crook, telling his tales for money to the News of the World; a prolific crime writer and criminologist; a literary fraudster and renowned royal biographer; a violent drunk, washed-up, alcoholic, and dead before his fortieth birthday.

A different take: it tells stories about lives that are both bewildering and absorbing. And each of these lives is rooted in the warp and the weft, and the sights and the sounds, of places that are equally bewildering and absorbing. A shabby office looking onto a Toronto park; an elegantly decorated bachelor pad off London’s Piccadilly; a reception room in Madrid’s royal palace; a smog-filled piss-smelling railway arch where a young man slept sought; a prison cell where he shivered and sobbed.

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It did not start this way, but it became a book about one man because his stories drew me in –not realising where pursuing him would lead. It became a book about one man because I started to see, and smell, and hear, and feel the places through which he moved. That felt sense of the nearness of the past also drew me in.

Did I end up writing a biography?


Prince of Tricksters follows the shape of a life. It starts with a death – his death – but once that is done it has a beginning, a middle, and an end that map onto the years that passed in the lives of Netley Lucas. The passage of biographical time is not where that shape came from, however.

The book is about the 1920s and 1930s. Telling stories about lives – my way of exploring an historical moment. In the nervous times after the Great War, as syncopated jazz rhythms evoked a pervasive mood of uncertainty rooted in a changing economy, society, and culture, confidence was at a premium. Who or what could be trusted? That question was raised by the charming stranger and the sensational newspaper headline. It was repeated by biographies of the great and good that promised great revelations and the ‘authentic’ life-story, and shouted louder still by boosterish politicians and advertising.

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This was a historical moment in which confidence was at a premium, and the confidence trickster became an archetypal figure. Perhaps that is what Prince of Tricksters is about.

Rather than the passage of biographical time, the beginning, the middle, and the end of the book is shaped by my efforts to understand how confidence was cultivated and secured in social, cultural, and political life.

It is about the history of crime – the rise and fall of the gentlemanly confidence trickster; the conditions that allowed him (it is about gender too) to flourish in seaside resorts and upscale hotels like the Ritz; the detectives that tried to put an end to his deceptions. That those deceptions did come to an end means that it is also about prison and Borstal, training ships and penal farms. Setting out that history is my way of showing how the drama of the confidence trick became exemplary of everyday social exchange in a society of strangers.

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It is about the history of the press and publishing. The furiously industrious pen of ‘The Prince of Tricksters’ brought into being a succession of newspaper ‘confessions’ and ‘exclusives’ on sensational crimes. Later – once the deceptions on which his tales rested had been exposed – that pen turned to saccharine biographies of Queen Mary and the Aga Khan. I have read all of these so you do not have to do the same, and to make sense of how the transformation of journalism and publishing provided opportunities for a young man on the make. It is about the unlikely ways in which the lines between high, middlebrow, and low culture – supposedly so impermeable in the time of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot – dissolved in the 1920s and 1930s.

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Did I end up in conversation with literary critics and scholars of modernism?

Most unexpected of all: it is about the history of monarchy, as retold through an account of the scandalous rise and fall of Evelyn Graham’s bogus biography factory. A renowned royal biographer went to prison for forging the signature of a courtier and faking the life-story of a queen. A literary scandal – an opportunity to set out the freighted politics of culture and the efforts of courtiers to shape the image of Britain’s royal family at a time when the institution seemed more beleaguered than ever. It is about the making of a modern monarchy which remains familiar today.


So what’s it about then?

Flamboyant lies and lives; crime, culture, monarchy; Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Prince of Tricksters is about all and none of these things.

It is a book about what it means to write history, and the ways in which we might make history differently. There is nothing like an elusive trickster, prone to changing names and stories, to expose the limits of what we can know about the past.

Telling stories about a life might seem an unlikely way of entering into conversation with historical theory and historiography. That is what I have tried to do, however. It has been a deliberate decision to switching from the comfortable rhythms of ‘academic’ writing into the strange-sounding stranger-looking form of a screenplay. History itself is a kind of storytelling. The scholarly apparatus of footnote and bibliography claim our confidence. Set against other ways of telling stories about the past, however, we see more clearly a discipline which is itself a ‘fictive undertaking.’

The historian as trickster – a charlatan of a certain kind, hiding among the masks and mirrors of proper scholarship.

Prince of Tricksters is also an argument about what critical history might me, made through the forms and rhythms of my writing and my subject’s lives.


 

It is also a book about me, but not always in ways that are immediately obvious.

 

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