Prince of Tricksters The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook
by Matt Houlbrook
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-13315-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-13329-4
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.001.0001


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.


Matt Houlbrook is professor of cultural history at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Birmingham, United Kingdom.


“Con man, royal biographer, tell-all memoirist—Netley Lucas had one more trick up his sleeve. He earned himself a historian who could explain how confidence men changed their era and why modern life itself became a racket. Through back-breaking detective work and an exposition that is both impeccable in its scholarship and playfully imaginative, Houlbrook exposes how Lucas and his ilk exploited the new possibilities of a world reeling from the devastation of World War I. A dazzlingly inventive and exceptionally canny book.”
— Deborah Cohen, author of Family Secrets

“Houlbrook’s adamant refusal to reduce to a single story the many incarnations of the confidence man Netley Lucas mobilizes historiographical debate as if by stealth. Questioning how and why we read and write history, this account of interwar Britain is like no other. At every turn Prince of Tricksters unravels the strands of one man’s life to unsettle the very possibility of getting the story right. Lively and lucid, the book will appeal not only to scholars but also the general reader.”
— Laura Doan, author of Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War

“Houlbrook has assembled all the pieces of the fascinating puzzle of Netley Lucas’s life, but when they are fitted together, the picture that emerges is a perfect blank. However, it’s a blank that never ceases to intrigue. . . . Prince of Tricksters is a remarkable work.”
— Bookforum

“Tracking his suave trickster prince Netley Lucas through courtrooms and across continents, Houlbrook shows that the confidence man, every bit as much as the flapper, defined Britain in the aftermath of the Great War. Houlbrook dares you to trust the plausible past that he has meticulously assembled out of Lucas’s many lives and lies. A virtuosic performance:  tender, bracing, and brilliant.”
— Seth Koven, author of The Match Girl and the Heiress

“This is an intriguing account not only of a con man, but of the social milieu that enabled him to thrive.”
— Times Higher Education

“It takes only a few pages of Houlbrook’s dense and absorbing chronicle to confirm that, as a confidence trickster, Netley Lucas reposed in the highest class. . . . Houlbrook — whose interest in his subject verges on the maniacal — stresses Lucas’s protean qualities, the ceaseless urge to reinvent himself, the self-justifying tendencies that encouraged him to believe his own lies. This, as Houlbrook acknowledges, is classic conman psychology, but just as fascinating are the reactions of the people Lucas duped.”
— Times

“In Prince of Tricksters, Houlbrook has uncovered the countless frauds perpetuated by one of Britain’s most brazen con artists—a relentless huckster who fooled aristocrats, journalists, publishers, and just about everyone else he encountered. . . . Houlbrook offers some playful surprises, rendering one episode from Lucas’ life into a snippet of screenplay and beginning the book with an affectionate ‘letter of love to my impossible subject.’ And there are intriguing explorations of the challenges historians face when untangling truth from fiction, especially when writing about someone who lied about so much for so long.”
— Scotsman

“Houlbrook shows how Lucas navigated his way through the vastly expanded popular publishing world of interwar Britain, conceiving books and articles, commissioning writers, seeking approval and even some sort of cooperation from his subjects. . . . The material is fascinating.”
— Literary Review

“This is far more than a biography. It is a portrait of a period in transition which Houlbrook describes as an ‘age of disguise.’ His book is theoretically aware, meticulously researched, and brimming with insights into both the interwar years and this unscrupulous yet remarkable figure for whom identity was as fluid and fleeting as quicksilver.”
— Guardian

Prince of Tricksters is much more than the biography of an elusive individual: it is also a glimpse of a particular kind of interwar British masculinity, as well as a reflection on the process of writing history from partial or misleading records. . . . Grounded in hours in the archives, this book slips the boundaries of generic classification in ways that seem completely fitting, given the elusive nature of its subject.”
— Space Between Journal

“Houlbrook plunged down the historical rabbit hole to follow Netley Lucas, and, in an astonishing feat of historical detective work, using everything from court records and newspaper reports to publishers’ archives and the correspondence of the royal household, found that this elusive figure adopted nearly forty different names and identities across his life. . . . All those interested in interwar cultures of crime and punishment, the development of popular journalism and life-writing, and the representation of the modern monarchy, will find this a rich, provocative, and memorable work.”
— Twentieth Century British History

“Houlbrook’s intimacy with the cultural landscape of his era is a real strength of the book. Allowing him to situate the content, genre, and dissemination of Lucas’s faked stories within the canon of high-, middle-, and low-brow literature then circulating, Houlbrook knits these references carefully into the web of ‘authenticity effects’ on which Lucas drew in order to secure publication of his own ‘fakes.’ This is surely a definitive model for historians aiming to expose the broader resonance of their specific topic of research, vividly recalling Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre (1984). In sum, Prince of Tricksters is an evocative and fascinating book that is sure to become required reading for future generations of historians.”
— Journal of British Studies

The man who has gotten under Houlbrook’s skin is lucky to have won a biographer capable of making this petty crook worthy of the reader’s time and attention. . . .However, that doesn’t describe this book, which rewards close and thoughtful reading.
— Journal of Modern History

“Deeply researched, theoretically sophisticated, and beautifully written.”
— American Literary History



List of Abbreviations

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0000
[biography, Britain, confidence, Great War, historical knowledge, Netley Lucas, 1920s, 1930s, storytelling, trickster]
This introduction places the criminal and literary deceptions of Netley Lucas within 1920s and 1930s society, culture, and politics. In the decade after the Great War the growing prominence of the confidence trick emblematized a broader crisis of confidence in the stability of social relations and the possibility of knowing who or what to trust in a mediated mass culture and democracy. Teasing out the historically specific conditions that made Lucas's stories possible, the chapter shows how they offer new ways of thinking about this formative moment. Building on this, it explores the problems created by a historical subject given to changing names and tall tales. Pressing against the conventions of biography and lifewriting, I embrace the limits of our knowledge of the past. Lucas demands a different kind of historical practice--a way of writing history that is readier to admit its limits and more open-ended in its conclusions. In telling stories about a prolific storyteller, the chapter explores how history itself is a kind of narrative with its own disciplinary conventions. Drawing attention to the expediencies of writing history, it presents the historian as trickster, hiding among the masks and mirrors of proper scholarship. (pages 1 - 22)

Part 1. Telling Stories: Crime and Confidence after the Great War

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0001
[authenticity, Britain, crime, confidence, Great War, Netley Lucas, selfhood, social relations, trickster, trust]
This chapter traces the criminal deceptions of Netley Lucas between 1917 and 1924. In the aftermath of the Great War crimes of confidence were identified as a pressing public problem. Set against what was called an "epidemic of bogus honourables," I show how the trickster emblematised a broader crisis of social relations in postwar Britain. The disruptions of war and the accelerating pace of social, economic, cultural, and political change in peacetime created growing unease about the stability of hierarchies of class and established elites. In a period when ideas of selfhood were increasingly associated with performance, the gentleman crook encapsulated the everyday difficulties of knowing who to trust and the problem of authenticity in a society of strangers. (pages 25 - 67)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0002
[Britain, crime, criminology, confidence, journalism, Netley Lucas, 1920s, 1930s, selfhood, trickster]
This chapter explores the ways in which Netley Lucas's crimes of confidence were understood. Focusing on the stories told about Lucas by police officers, magistrates, prison chaplains, criminologists, and journalists--and those he later told himself--I show how criminal lives could be made meaningful in the 1920s and 1930s. In putting the flamboyant gentlemanly trickster in his place, contemporaries drew on the characteristic forms of sensational journalism, emerging forms of criminological and psychoanalytic knowledge, and new ideas of selfhood to make sense of his deceptions. Picking up the threads of Lucas's lives, the chapter shows how the exposed the precariousness of confidence in 1920s Britain. While Lucas was an exemplary postwar figure, however, by the 1930s the gentlemanly trickster was written out of official and popular understandings of crimes of confidence. (pages 68 - 106)

Part 2. Selling Selves: Ghosts and Life Stories

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0003
[authenticity, Britain, crime, criminology, confidence, journalism, lifewriting, Netley Lucas, publishing, selfhood]
This chapter explores the metamorphosis through which Netley Lucas remade himself as an "ex-crook" and prolific confessional journalist in the mid-1920s. The spectacular success of his lifewriting and firsthand accounts of the underworld reflected the growing value of authenticity in public life and mass culture. Tracing the ways in which Lucas cultivated the confidence of readers, editors, and publishers in his writing allows us to understand how confidence could be claimed and trust extended. Modern forms of criminology and new ideas of selfhood allowed Lucas to make sense of a life in crime. His career as a freelance writer exemplified the transformation of journalism and publishing in the 1920s and 1930s. Writing as an ex-crook was both an increasingly common position, and freighted with social, cultural, and political significance in a period when the management of crime and prison reform were explosive public issues. (pages 109 - 147)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0004
[Authenticity, crime, criminology, confidence, journalism, lifewriting, Netley Lucas, publishing]
In the mid-1920s Netley Lucas refashioned his public identity as a writer on crime. Rather than writing as an ex-crook, he now wrote for newspapers, periodicals, and publishers as a "special correspondent" or criminologist. Rather than firsthand knowledge, the authenticity of his work was now rooted in the analytic tools of a dispassionate expert. Placing Lucas's journalism, criminology, and fiction against the stories he told as a gentleman crook suggests the personal circumstances and anxieties that could have animated his ambition. The transformation of modern journalism and emergence of the crime reporter as a distinct professional type gave him new opportunities. Lucas's remaking as a correspondent and criminologist reflected both his own insecurities and the growing authority of criminal science in society, culture, and politics. His status as a comic book criminologist prompts us to think critically about the extent to which criminology was the modernizing project it claimed. (pages 148 - 183)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0005
[authenticity, crime, confidence, fake, journalism, lifewriting, Netley, Lucas, publishing, scandal, trickster]
Netley Lucas's success as a freelance writer on crime reflected his ability to cultivate the confidence of editors, publishers, and readers in the authenticity of his journalism and lifewriting. In the mid-1920s, however, suspicion grew about the authorship and provenance of his work. This chapter shows how Lucas's literary career both reflected and fuelled anxieties over the deleterious effects of the commercialised market on the ethics and practice of journalism and publishing and, in particular, the boundaries between "truth" and "fiction." In 1927-8 Lucas's "exclusive" newspaper reports were exposed as fake and his firsthand confessions revealed as a confidence trick on the reading public. The scandal that followed discredited Lucas and destroyed his career as a writer on crime. It also exposed the deceptions and expediencies of popular journalism and publishing for all to see. The crime writer was still a confidence trickster. (pages 184 - 220)

Part 3. Bogus Biographies: Literary Scandal and the Politics of Culture

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0006
[Albert Marriott, authenticity, confidence, Evelyn Graham, journalism, lifewriting, monarchy, publishing, Royal Household]
This chapter traces the spectacular rise of the royal biographer Evelyn Graham and the publisher Albert Marriott between 1928 and 1931. Setting Graham and Marriott's published work against their interactions with publishers, editors, agents, and the royal household, it tracks both how emerging forms of mass culture transformed monarchy’s public image, and what it meant to write an "authentic" royal life. Authenticity was neither immanent nor self-evident. Instead it was an effect to be achieved by conforming to the conventions of the genre or a label secured through processes of artistic and social accreditation. The men's success reflected their ability to exploit the remaking of the royal family as modern celebrities, increasing demand for the "inside story" in biography and journalism, and new opportunities created by the expansion of book and periodical publishing. (pages 223 - 253)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0007
[Albert Marriott, authenticity, confidence, Evelyn Graham, journalism, lifewriting, monarchy, publishing, Royal Household, scandal]
The value of the authorized royal life in journalism and publishing drew biographers and publishers into contact with Britain's royal household. Corresponding with the Private Secretaries of George V and other members of the royal family, Albert Marriott and Evelyn Graham sought endorsement for their work. In a period when the foundations of monarchical authority were challenged by new forms of mass democracy and culture, courtiers sought to manage the monarchy's public image and cultivate the support of a democratic citizenry. Commercial publishing and personal journalism threatened social hierarchies, but also made official goodwill and authority priceless. Traditional forms of patrician power could be elaborated through ostensibly modern consumer markets. Tracking the royal household's correspondence with (and about) Marriott and Graham, this chapter explores the informal processes through which an "authentic" royal life came into being. Focusing on moments at which courtiers publicly identified work as unauthorized, inaccurate, or intrusive suggests how mass culture was politicized in the 1920s and 1930s. The traces left by Graham and Marriott allow us to understand the transformation of monarchical power and authority, its effects on popular life-writing, and the growing scandal around the bogus biography factory. (pages 254 - 276)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0008
[Albert Marriott, authenticity, confidence, Evelyn Graham, journalism, lifewriting, monarchy, publishing, scandal]
In summer 1931 the Daily Mail exposed Evelyn Graham and Albert Marriott as the discredited crime writer Netley Lucas. Arrested for obtaining money by false pretences, Graham was imprisoned for 18 months. The furore over his work provides a starting point for rethinking the historical significance of literary scandal. The scandals around the "bogus biography factory" can be read against specific crises of literary production and accreditation, revealing the illusory and precarious status of authenticity in publishing and journalism. Scandal resonated more widely, however, raising questions around the transformation of British social and political life and how it was to be represented. Not just concerned with the legitimate ways in which monarchy could be depicted, the debates prompted by Graham's work addressed the position of social elites in a period when established structures of class were being questioned. Following Graham suggests the freighted relationship between the politics of monarchical authority, the ethics and practice of lifewriting, and commercial mass culture. (pages 277 - 306)

Part 4. Denouement

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0009
[authenticity, crime, confidence, Evelyn Graham, journalism, lifewriting, Netley Lucas, publishing, selfhood]
This chapter picks up the threads of Netley Lucas's lives between his release from prison in 1933 and his death as a violent alcoholic in 1940. It uses his final autobiography My Selves (co-authored by Lucas and Evelyn Graham) to explore the ways in which he made sense of the many "selves" that characterized his career. Emphasizing the indeterminacies of his lifewriting, it reflects on the limits of historical knowledge, the fractured nature of selfhood, and the difficulties created by an impossible biographical subject. The tensions between ludic and melancholic understandings of multiplicity in My Selves provide a framework through which to understand the fragmented archival traces of Lucas's tortuous personal relationships and struggles to rebuild his career in journalism and publishing. Despite the sordid circumstances of his demise, Lucas lived on in popular crime writing because his flamboyant crimes of confidence retained their capacity to intrigue. (pages 309 - 339)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226133294.003.0010
[biography , Great War, historical knowledge, journalism, lifewriting, monarchy, Netley Lucas, 1920s, 1930s, storytelling]
This is a conclusion, of a sort, that reflects on the lies and lives of Netley Lucas. His prolific storytelling exposed a crisis of confidence that cut across social relations, cultural forms, and mass politics in 1920s and 1930s Britain. Lucas was one of the quintessential people of the aftermath of the Great War, but by the time of his death in 1940 he was an anachronism. The traces of his lives endured in the characteristic forms of modern mass culture--crime writing and journalism, lifewriting and popular cultures of monarchy--but the Prince of Tricksters was now a ghost from the past. An apparitional figure, he troubles the work of biographers and historians, disrupts the foundations of historical knowledge, and forces us to explore how we might do history and biography differently. (pages 340 - 346)