Lately, I've been reading a book called The Napoleon of Crime
, by Ben MacIntyre. It's about master thief, Adam Worth, the real life inspiration for Moriarty.
The story itself is intrinsically interesting, of course--a rags-to-riches story via theft, a gallery of colorful criminal characters, morality in Victorian England, what's not to like? But there are two random things I've really enjoyed about reading this book. First is hearing about how Worth planned his crimes. The second is all the things that go wrong.
I'm pretty open about my disdain for Rube Goldberg plots--you know, the kind where everything is ridiculously complicated and depends on really improbable, uncontrollable details, such as the hero discovering a certain hidden piece of evidence, hidden specifically because the plotter somehow knows their quarry but no one else will find it all on their own, at just the right time. And yet these plots work, because in the controlled environment of fiction, a genius plotter is never foiled by, say, his quarry calling in sick from work.
These Rube Goldberg plots are especially annoying if you have two dueling geniuses--you start getting into "TWAS I WHO POOPED IN YOUR BUTT
So it's really refreshing to read about someone like Adam Worth, who by all accounts was a very smart, very resourceful man. But his plans? Are usually very simple--carefully planned, of course, and lubricated by a lot of money, but simple.
For instance, when Worth's hapless younger brother got caught and sent to prison, Worth hoped to spring him from jail by paying his bail, at which point his brother could skip town. But if Worth did it himself, the police would know about their connection, causing risk. So instead, he stole a valuable painting from some other dude, clipped a scrap of canvas from it to give to his brother, and then got his brother a lawyer to contact the painting's owner to say, "I have a client who can help get your painting returned, if you pay his bail, and he's got a bit of the canvas as proof." Brother gets sprung, without Worth ever coming into it. Simple!
But even simple plans like this don't work out as planned. In fact, they go wrong all the time! For instance, with the above example, there was a lucky break, and Worth's younger brother managed to get out of jail all on his own, leaving Worth with a very valuable, completely unsellable painting. Other times, his henchman squeal on him, or get arrested, or escape jail only to be captured by brigands and have to pawn their gold teeth to make it home! Even Worth himself gets sent to prison multiple times! Even Worth has his bad days where he makes very, very poor decisions, because he's human and every human screws themselves over some of the time.
And that just makes it so much more fun to read about! Reading about how Adam Worth deals with his backstabbing henchman, or flees a failed heist only to try again, or talks his way out of jail, is way more interesting than if everything had gone right! It says so much more about his intelligence, ruthlessness, and his nerve when you see him deal with failure.
I get the sense this book plays a little fast and loose with the facts, but it is entertaining. And I'm okay with that.