Saturday, January 12, 2019

An African Millionaire

An African Millionaire (1897) by Grant Allen is one of the first books to feature a "gentleman crook." Colonel Cuthbert Clay (his alias) is a master of disguise and an ingenious con man who sets his sights on the South African Millionaire, Sir Charles Vandrift. Vandrift is a man of dubious morality himself who has not been above shady dealings if it would get him what he wanted--whether that be diamonds for his wife or a diamond mine. In a series of twelve stories Clay transforms himself through skillfully applied make-up and his ability to mimic the behavior of others into a Tyrolean Count, a humble parson, a Mexican Seer with psychic powers, and even a detective employed by Vandrift to catch himself. Clay repeatedly eludes capture until the very last story--where, although he faces prison, he still manages to humble the financier who has been his prey.

The book was a somewhat disappointing read for me--primarily because the blurb on the back of the book made it seem as though we would be reading about the exploits of this magnificent con man from his point of view. That we would see how he plotted his schemes to take in Sir Charles. Instead we follow the millionaire about and see everything from the point of view of his "Watson"--his faithful brother-in-law and secretary/companion. Since the stories were told from this side of the confidence trick, it would have been more effective if we, the readers, hadn't been told that the same thief was pulling these jobs off. Then we could have been mystified until the final reveal at the end. As it was, the tales were fairly anti-climatic and we could only shake our heads at how gullible Sir Charles (and his brother-in-law) is. He is particularly so considering how often we are told that not just anybody could fool him, that he wouldn't have made his millions if he was taken in by confidence tricks. And yet...even though he knows that Colonel Clay has targeted him again and again, he never suspects that he's falling into another trap. 

What does work here is the social satire--revealing just how greed and vanity can lead even the greatest of millionaire into folly. Clay's job is made all the easier because Sir Charles just can't resist getting his hands on a diamond or a rare painting by a master--especially if he thinks he's underpaying. It is also satisfying to see the unscrupulous financier cheated himself. 

A decent read that might have been better if the blurb hadn't been so misleading. But then, perhaps the blurb-writer has a bit of Colonel Clay in him... ★★

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