The Grifter

Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook BY Matt Houlbrook. University Of Chicago Press. Hardcover, 448 pages. $40.

Photos of Netley Lucas in Prince of Tricksters show a slender, pleasant-looking young man, sort of halfway between Eddie Redmayne and a young Hugh Grant. The images of Lucas linger—one at his desk, seemingly hard at work, one from a wanted poster, another from the Police Gazette, still another seated in a chair, hands folded in his lap, looking for all the world like a respectable British man of letters. They are all haunting and more than a bit disturbing.

You know from the book’s opening page that Lucas was thought in his time to be “a naval officer, a decorated war hero, a gentleman, a lord; he has been a servant of empire, a journalist and crime writer, a publisher and famous royal biographer.” He was none of these, though he posed as all of them; in reality he was “a confidence trickster and thief, a writer of fake news and bogus biographies, a convicted criminal, a down-and-out.” The photos of him seem ghostly, almost soulful, as if he were challenging—no, pleading—with those looking at him to solve the riddle of who he really is.

Good luck with that, because even an astute and intelligent biographer like University of Birmingham historian Matt Houlbrook hasn’t figured him out. He has assembled
all the pieces of the fascinating puzzle of Netley Lucas’s life, but when they are fitted together, the picture that emerges is a perfect blank. However, it’s a blank that never ceases to intrigue.

Until his death in 1940 at age thirty-six, Lucas, writes Houlbrook, was “famous, even notorious. Colorful and scandalous, he was still a characteristic figure of the 1920s and 1930s.” For his part, Lucas always maintained that he was a gentleman. His mother died in childbirth, and his father, whose family was “wealthy rather than aristocratic,” went on a drunken Parisian spree after which he was found drowned in the Seine. At the still-tender age of fourteen, Lucas fled public school and embarked on a career that involved numerous fabricated names and identities, such as the Honorable Basil Vaughan and Lieutenant Francis Deligny. “Fraud and false pretenses sustained a hedonistic lifestyle in London, Toronto, and perhaps the French Riviera and New York.”

He was married twice and known to have been arrested and imprisoned four times. A couple of his trials became public sensations “that tried yet failed to establish the ‘truth’ of his identity.” After he had become infamous, an acquantance told a reporter for the Empire News that Lucas “had a fascinating way with other men and women. He would look you straight in the face and assure you that he was lord somebody or a hero of the war—and you believed him.”

In reviewing his early career of confidence games, forged checks, jewel theft, and other swindles, the “aristocrat of crooks” was astonished at “the insignificance of the charges brought against me in comparison with the crimes I had committed.” He estimated that in four years, at his peak, he had run through between “£11,000 and £12,000 of other people’s money.”

Deported from Canada in 1924, Lucas morphed into a celebrity ex-crook, “turning his disreputable past into a salable commodity” by writing true-crime stories (featuring, among other colorful characters, a Chinese playboy named Brilliant Chang), autobiographical pieces, and even a novel. In the 1920s he wrote six such books, all for reputable publishing houses.

In his Autobiography of a Crook, he claimed to have found a “priceless treasure . . . the love of a good woman, unselfish and purifying.” He also described his dream cottage: “We had a large garden, two bicycles, and a pet donkey we called ‘Archie.’” But he was not destined for this life of domestic bliss and later admitted, “I am perfectly well aware that there is a criminal ‘kink’ in my brain.”

That kink produced still another new identity for Lucas: as a bogus editor and publisher named Evelyn Graham, whose biography factory produced fraudulent life stories of real-life royals and celebrities. When this imposture finally came to light, he was sent to Wormwood Scrubs Prison for fifteen months. Three years later came a second memoir, My Selves, in which he wrote, “I am being, perhaps for the first time, perfectly honest with myself and the world.” The book’s cover alone gave the lie to that statement: The authors were listed as Netley Lucas and Evelyn Graham.

For all the narrative challenges involved in arriving at a reliable account of Lucas’s life, Prince of Tricksters is a remarkable work. Houlbrook is clearly fascinated by his subject—at times one wishes he had kept more of a distance from him, as when he writes imaginary letters to Lucas, particularly one that begins, “I remember exactly where I was when I first saw you, Netley.” Yet he has no illusions about Lucas, nor about the difficulties of seeking to expose a character whose entire life was lived in the shadows. At the least, his incessant probing into Lucas’s secret lives has proved to him that “our knowledge of the past has shaky foundations.”

The “claustrophobic melancholy” of My Selves, Lucas’s last published work, seems to presage his death in 1940 from carbon-monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation after a fire in his home. A postmortem indicated symptoms of “acute and chronic alcoholism.” A few years after his death, the once-notorious criminal and crime writer was “within living memory, but part of a distant past.”

In an avaricious move worthy of the master himself, several British publishers reissued some of the fake biographies by Evelyn Graham in the 1930s. And Lucas would no doubt have savored the splendid irony of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography electing, after his death, to list some of Evelyn Graham’s work as sources for entries on royal personages. In much the same fashion, Houlbrook’s dogged, if inevitably abortive, effort to wrestle Lucas’s elusive character onto the printed page would likely yield a brusque, aristocratic guffaw from, say, the Honorable Basil Vaughan.

Allen Barra is a columnist for American History and writes about books and film for the Daily Beast and Salon.com.