The case of the missing subject

Ruth Brandon discovers that it's far from elementary to catch a master thief; The Napoleon of Crime: the life and times of Adam Worth, the real Moriarty by Ben Macintyre, HarperCollins, pounds 18

To judge by the TV listings, the British public is obsessively fascinated by crime. Scams and police procedurals cram the schedules; detectives and criminals pervade the national imagination. On the face of it, this is an odd obsession. Criminals are rarely engaging characters, and one burglary, mugging or rape is much like another. But crime stories offer suspense. They provide an outlet for authoritarians and anti-authoritarians alike. And they offer unfoldings and unveilings - for the successful criminal is never what he seems.

The first person fully to realise the literary and dramatic possibilities of the detective story was Arthur Conan Doyle. A century after his first appearance, Sherlock Holmes remains a cultural icon, infinitely imitated but never surpassed. And almost as famous is Holmes's nemesis, his chief adversary: the sinister, all-knowing Dr Moriarty - "the Napoleon of crime".

It is easy, therefore, to empathise with Ben Macintyre's glee when he realised he had stumbled upon the original of this terrific figure. Poking around the Los Angeles archive of Pinkerton's detective agency during a lull in the Rodney King trial, he came across a scrapbook containing material relating to Adam Worth, the most successful criminal of his age. Worth got away with millions, and (as Macintyre shows) provided the inspiration for Conan Doyle's master crook.

For the next four years, Macintyre diligently dug up all he could find relating to Worth's career. He began as a young bounty-jumper in the American civil war, staged his first bank robbery at the Boylston Bank in Boston, fathered two children on the bigamous wife of his closest colleague, and had a gambling-parlour near the Opera in Paris and a retreat in London (where he became a man-about-town financing his way of life by stealing diamonds). The peak of his career came with the brazen theft from Agnew's Bond Street showrooms of the Gainsborough portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Here, for the first time, it's all set out. So, too, is Worth's relation to William Pinkerton. As with Holmes and Moriarty, each regarded the other as his only worthy adversary - though Pinkerton, far from being murdered by Worth, succoured him at the end of his life when he fell on hard times.

Unfortunately, Worth is by no means as compelling a character as Moriarty. One can't help wondering, as one reads, whether crime and criminals are really so interesting after all. So what, between conception and execution, went wrong?

An insurmountable difficulty lies in the book's raw material. The first essential of biography, as of fiction, is engagement with the protagonist. But although Macintyre knows everything Adam Worth did, and the way he did it, he never really gets inside his subject. We watch as Worth pulls of coup after criminal coup and lives his double life, but we never hear Worth's own voice - presumably because this is primarily a cuttings job and no letters, journals or memoirs exist. Macintyre's assertions about his hero's relationship with the stolen picture (a deep romantic involvement, or so we are assured) ring somewhat false. How does he know all this? If speculation, what underpins it? And this central absence is not helped by the surrounding characters, each more hopeless than the one before.

The second problem is one of shape. In a novel, this material would have a shape imposed upon it. Conan Doyle would have seized on the theft of the Gainsborough to produce The Case of the Missing Duchess. Or one might concentrate upon the relationship between Worth and Pinkerton, to make a study of the curious symbiosis between criminals and detectives.

Macintyre does indeed make much of both these stories - in the case of the Duchess, almost overmuch. But you can't help feeling that he hasn't quite made up his mind. Is this biography, social history, or just a strange tale? In the end, it's still raw material: fascinating, but not quite enough in itself.

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