Netley Lucas was a debonair and charming con man, described by the press as the "prince of tricksters". Matt Houlbrook has written a remarkable study of this extraordinary character who died in 1940, aged just 36. He was a notorious confidence trickster, convicted thief, concocter of fake crime news stories, and the writer and publisher of bogus royal biographies.
Lucas changed identities as easily as others change their clothing. Houlbrook admits being fascinated by the motivation of this gentleman crook: "I'm obsessed with making sense of you."
He began his criminal career aged just 14. A friend later recalled how convincing Lucas could be: “I had no idea that he was other than he pretended to be…he 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.”
Lucas monetised his genteel manners and appearance, sweet-talking hotel managers and shopkeepers, turning charm and class into credit. By 17, he was driving around in a chauffeur-driven Daimler from Harrods and socialising with duchesses and chorus girls. Later he went on to reinvent himself first as a crime journalist and then as the author and publisher of royal biographies. After he published a biography of Queen Mary in 1930, she went through a copy of the book highlighting the errors: “I have annotated this book to show what a number of inventions are written about one.”
For Houlbrook, Lucas’s life-story reveals deeper truths about the period after the Great War in which the boundaries between class and gender were shifting. New forms of mass culture and democracy were changing how people viewed the state’s institutions and offered greater possibilities of social reinvention: “Lucas’s crimes were unusual, but his aspirations echoed those of countless ordinary men and women in a period when advertising encouraged dreamlike fantasies of social mobility.”
Lucas’s success as a confidence trickster suggested that in an "age of disguise" all you needed was money and a veneer of class to pass yourself off as a gentleman. In a society of strangers, his crimes were deeply subversive.
You can read my Guardian review of Houlbrook's book here.