Magazine article The Spectator

A Better Class of Villian

Magazine article The Spectator

A Better Class of Villian

Article excerpt

THE NAPOLEON OF CRIME: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ADAM WORTH, THE REAL MORIARTY by Ben Macintyre HarperCollins, 18, pp. 320

The life of Adam Worth, a l9th-century gangster, makes one despair of today's criminal classes. Take, for example, Curtis Warren, recently voted the man Interpol most wanted to meet, who was jailed last month by a Dutch court for 12 years. One of Britain's wealthiest men, with a fortune of 40 million, made largely from cocaine smuggling, he was clearly more a drugs duke than a mere baron, but how did he spend his ill-gotten gains? Buying terraced houses to rent out to social security claimants, and, attempting a more exotic touch, acquiring two petrol stations in Turkey and a Bulgarian winery. In these egalitarian days, some people may secretly rejoice that one of the underworld's aristos should display no more class than a Chingford swimming-pool attendant, but I think Spectator readers, with their instinctive understanding of the obligations of the noblesse, might reasonably expect someone in his position to set the muggers and backstreet crack dealers a better example.

They will turn with some relief to the behaviour of Worth, jewel thief, bank robber and forger, who for most of the 1870s and 1880s topped the Most Wanted charts of both Scotland Yard and Pinkertons Detective Agency. Ben Macintyre does not attempt a vulgar totting up of his hauls, but he made enough to buy a house in Piccadilly, a mansion on the front at Brighton, a string of thoroughbreds, a 400acre shooting estate, and a 110-foot yacht, with enough left over for gambling in Monte Carlo and cruising on transatlantic liners. As laundering goes, this, one feels, is more like it, but the purchases were no more than foothills to his Everest - pinching Gainsborough's `The Duchess of Devonshire' from Agnew's showrooms in 1876. It was this feat, carried out simply because the Duchess's face reminded him of Kitty Flynn, his Irish girlfriend, that promoted him from mere peerage to the exalted status which was embodied in his nickname, the Napoleon of Crime. As such, he achieved the ultimate accolade of being transmuted by Conan Doyle's imagination from short, fat Worth to long, thin Professor Moriarty.

Macintyre, in normal life the Times's correspondent in France, deserves credit for rescuing this entertaining tale from the Pinkerton files. …

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