Chicago Distribution Center
The setting is Britain between the wars. The main character is Netley Lucas, the Prince of Trickstersconfidence man, confessional autobiographer, and Royal biographer. But Netley is also a gentleman crook, a criminologist, a predatory rake, a pathological liar, and discredited fraud. His biographies of the Royal family were bestsellers. He corresponded with celebrated novelists and actors, senior detectives and notorious murderers, politicians, and monarchs. This international man of mystery” turns out to be a lens through which the entire interwar period in Britain (and by implication, Europe and North America) can be understood. During this period, the confidence man was the paragon, the identity marker at a time when the devastation of war and its aftermath was upending social hierarchies and fueling fantasies of upward mobility. Netley Lucas embodied a new idea of what the self was becomingprotean, performative, Promethean. Tricksters sparked a profound public fascination during the 20s and 30s with individuals who could fake it,” crossing boundaries of class, gender, race, ethnicity, age, by masquerading as something they were not. As Houlbrook says of his own book, it explains why modern life itself has now become a racket. In the course of laying out this multifaceted story, Houlbrook shows dramatically how elusive truth can be, how our desire to imagine ourselves into the past makes us complicit in requiring history to, in effect, misrepresent the past. Ultimately, Houlbrook’s adventure with the many lives of Netley Lucas makes us ask new and troubling questions about what we expect from the enterprise of history. Along the way, he beguiles us with hugely entertaining glimpses of conmen, chancers, vamps, and wannabes.
Meet Netley Lucas, Prince of Tricksters—royal biographer, best-selling crime writer, and gentleman crook. In the years after the Great War, Lucas becomes infamous for climbing the British social ladder by his expert trickery—his changing names and telling of tales. An impudent young playboy and a confessed confidence trickster, he finances his far-flung hedonism through fraud and false pretenses. After repeated spells in prison, Lucas transforms himself into a confessing “ex-crook,” turning his inside knowledge of the underworld into a lucrative career as freelance journalist and crime expert. But then he’s found out again—exposed and disgraced for faking an exclusive about a murder case. So he reinvents himself, taking a new name and embarking on a prolific, if short-lived, career as a royal biographer and publisher. Chased around the world by detectives and journalists after yet another sensational scandal, the gentleman crook dies as spectacularly as he lived—a washed-up alcoholic, asphyxiated in a fire of his own making.
The lives of Netley Lucas are as flamboyant as they are unlikely. In Prince of Tricksters, Matt Houlbrook picks up the threads of Lucas’s colorful lies and lives. Interweaving crime writing and court records, letters and life-writing, Houlbrook tells Lucas’s fascinating story and, in the process, provides a panoramic view of the 1920s and ’30s. In the restless times after the Great War, the gentlemanly trickster was an exemplary figure, whose tall tales and bogus biographies exposed the everyday difficulties of knowing who and what to trust. Tracing how Lucas both evoked and unsettled the world through which he moved, Houlbrook shows how he prompted a pervasive crisis of confidence that encompassed British society, culture, and politics.
Taking readers on a romp through Britain, North America, and eventually into Africa, Houlbrook confronts readers with the limits of our knowledge of the past and challenges us to think anew about what history is and how it might be made differently.