The con artist who fooled almost everyone

Prince of Tricksters
Prince of Tricksters
  • Prince of Tricksters by Matt Houlbrook
  • University of Chicago Press, £28
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Prince of Tricksters must be one of the few accounts of a con man’s exploits to begin with a list of the subject’s published works. When not scheming to relieve the gullible of their money, Netley Lucas wrote seven books under his real name, including a 1924 autobiography.

So it’s fitting that he ultimately turned his hand to literary fraud; his most audacious scam was a series of fanciful biographies of European royalty.

In Prince of Tricksters, historian Matt Houlbrook has uncovered the countless frauds perpetuated by one of Britain’s most brazen con artists – who fooled aristocrats, journalists, publishers and just about everyone else.

After several stints in jail and a failed bid to set up a bogus employment agency in Canada (he was arrested and deported back to Britain in the mid-1920s), Lucas reinvented himself. Drawing on his experiences behind bars and his underworld contacts, he earned fame – and a considerable legitimate income – as a writer and amateur criminologist.

Lucas’ world unraveled in 1927, when a “scoop” about an unsolved murder was denounced as a hoax. A subsequent New York Times investigation exposed how he had embellished his past crimes to sell books. His final gambit, more than a dozen royal biographies churned out between 1928 and 1931, ended with a conviction for defrauding a publisher.

Houlbrook, a professor of cultural history at the University of Birmingham, offers a thorough and thought-provoking examination of the life of this mischievous and elusive figure. The depth of his research is astounding; he seems to have uncovered (and included) every scrap of information that deals with Lucas. As a result, the swindler’s intriguing story is sometimes buried under layers of documentation.

Prince of Tricksters will reward patient readers with tales of the audacity of Lucas as well as insights into the forces transforming British society in the inter-war years.