Book Reviews

The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, the Real Moriarty by Ben Macintyre

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List Price: £9.99


Paperback: 320 Pages.

Published: 05 January 2012 by HarperPress

Edition: New Ed

ISBN: 9780006550624

EAN: 9780006550624

The rumbustious true story of the Victorian master thief who was the model for Conan Doyle’s Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch-rival. From the bestselling author of ‘Operation Mincemeat’ and ‘Agent Zigzag’.

Adam Worth was the greatest master criminal of Victorian times. Abjuring violence and setting himself up as a perfectly respectable gentleman, he became the ringleader for the largest criminal network in the world and the model for Conan Doyle’s evil genius, Moriarty.

At the height of his powers, he stole Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, then the world’s most valuable painting, from its London showroom. The duchess became his constant companion, the symbol and substance of his achievements. At the end of his career, he returned the painting, having gained nothing material from its theft.

Worth’s Sherlock Holmes was William Pinkerton, founder of America’s first and greatest detective agency. Their parallel lives form the basis for this extraordinary book, which opens a window on the seedy Victorian underworld, wittily exposing society’s hypocrisy and double standards in a storytelling tour de force.


4.0 Stars4.0 Stars4.0 Stars4.0 Stars  by Anne

Fascinating social history

I am not at all fond of books where the author seems to admire criminal activity and try to make a hero out of the criminal and I am very pleased that this was avoided in this very readable biography of Adam Worth. Worth was a gang leader and bank robber in the late nineteenth century. He was American and started his career by defrauding the military in the American Civil War. He moved from America to Europe where he became very rich and lived the high life with great enjoyment only to end his "career" in penury. The author doesn't glorify Worth or his exploits and he tells his tale and that of many of his associates showing both the high and the low points.

Worth is not an admirable character, although we can see that he might have been much worse but it is difficult to understand at times why he rose to the top of his "trade". The author describes his exploits but fails to help us understand what exactly it was that Worth did that made him more successful in crime than his compatriots - other than think big. We maybe needed more details of how he planned his crimes and carried them out. The same applies to the Pinkerton men who pursued and tracked him down - how exactly did they do this and why couldn't others do the same ? More detail would have enhanced the book but I still thought that the narrative was clear and informative and written in such a way that it kept me hooked.

Worth's most publicised crime was the theft of the portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire which he stole and then kept hold of for many years. He appeared to have an attraction for the painting which is difficult to grasp. I thought that the author rather overdid this element of the book and maybe made more of it than there really is the evidence to substantiate but it is certainly a fascinating set of events.

This is an excellent social history of an era of criminality and corruption which hopefully is long gone. It is well written and very readable. The subject is fascinating and the author fills in the context well and tells the stories of minor characters to flesh out the main narrative. I enjoyed this a lot.

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