The real Moriarty

THE NAPOLEON OF CRIME by Ben Macintyre HarperCollins pounds 18
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Has Anybody heard of Adam Worth? Probably not. His name isn't listed in any of the dictionaries, nor was he known to the general public in his lifetime. But Ben Macintyre's new biography of the man who turns out to have been the slipperiest criminal mastermind of the Victorian age must surely rank as one of the most thrilling and unusual stories ever told.

Adam Worth was an ambitious American, a mover and a shaker who by a neat succession of beautifully executed deceptions, rose from humble beginnings (his parents lowly German-Jewish immigrants) to become, by his early thirties, the suavest and best-dressed of gentlemen, a multi-millionaire and much admired man-about-town. He had houses in Piccadilly and Paris, he owned shoots and yachts - and why not? From 1869 to 1892 he had stolen over $4m, and the beauty of it all was that he never committed a single stroke of violence for a penny of it. Violence was for lower-class criminals and Worth considered himself, above all, to be an honourable, high-class crook.

If Adam Worth is not a household name today, his legacy seems to have lived on in the strangest of ways. His grandson founded the PanAm airline. Ben Macintyre believes that Worth was the real-life model for Conan Doyle's criminal genius, Moriarty, and puts forward a tantalising case in order to prove it. If he was then we mustn't forget that Moriarty was also, in turn, the model for T S Eliot's Mystery Cat, Macavity: "He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare: / At whatever time the deed took place - Macavity wasn't there!" So Worth, in a curious posthumous guise, finds himself nightly transmoggiefied on the West End stage, in Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical, Cats.

The real Worth's first big coup was in Boston. He hired a chemist's shop next to the Boylston National Bank, filling its windows with tonic bottles so that nobody could peer inside. One night he burrowed through the wall into the bank's safe box and removed nearly pounds 1m in cash and bonds. Other career highlights include the forging of his own death certificate after the Battle of Bull Run and his escape from the army, his reappearance in England under the pseudonym Henry J Raymond, the South African heist of 1880 when he coolly walked off with the entire diamond shipment of the great Kimberley mines, and his later snatch-and-grab of another whopping bag of jewels from a post office in Hatton Garden.

But by far and away the most romantic and high-profile of his daring deeds was the theft of Gainsborough's masterpiece, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, from Agnew's shop in Old Bond Street. At the time it was the most expensive painting ever sold - William Agnew had given 10,000 guineas for it in 1876. At first Worth had taken the picture in order to use it as a bargaining tool to get his brother out of gaol. But the brother was released anyway on a legal technicality, which left Worth to continue his life of crime over the next 20 years with what was, by then, the world's most famous painting, concealed in his secret suitcase compartment or tacked to the back of his mattress. According to Macintyre, Worth had fallen in love with the portrait. It became not just a good- luck talisman, an eternal symbol of his own infallible criminal genius, but the Duchess herself (Princess Di's great-great-great-aunt). Her delicately painted smirk and come-hither eyebrows seemed to remind Worth of his own lost love, the coquettish mother to his children, a delectable Irish barmaid called Kitty Flynn.

The Sherlock Holmes of the piece is William Pinkerton of the world-famous Pinkerton detective agency - also a genius of sorts - who spent much of his life trying to put Worth behind bars. Over one course of 30 years neither the detective nor the crook entirely succeeded in outwitting the other, but a curious mutual respect developed between them. Their final encounter (Worth's ultimate masterstroke) provides one of the most unbelievable twists in criminal history. It is far too juicy to be revealed here - suffice it to say that Ben Macintyre tells all with the gleeful relish and burning psychological insight of a first-rate storyteller.

This is a most remarkable and entertaining biography. It gallops along over four continents, through the stealing, the spending and the giving of millions of dirty dollars, through the oblique and lonely world of Adam Worth. It is a highly charged thriller, a moving love affair, a dramatic history of the Victorian criminal underworld, a noble tragedy. And, most extraordinary of all - it is a true story.