Book Review: A Prince of Swindlers

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When one looks back on that time, and remembers how vigorously, even in the midst of all that season’s gaiety, our social world took him up, the fuss that was made of him, the manner in which his doings were chronicled by the Press, it is indeed hard to realize how egregiously we were all being deceived.

A Prince of Swindlers, by Guy Boothby

It’s safe to say that Sherlock Holmes was the most popular fictional sleuth of his day. Even today, he remains undyingly popular, with endless adaptations being churned out by Hollywood. But what about other Victorian detective fiction?

I’m currently taking a seminar in Victorian detective fiction, and in addition to various Sherlock Holmes stories, we’re also studying Guy Boothby’s A Prince of Swindlers. Much like Sherlock Holmes, Boothby’s protagonist, Simon Carne, possesses unparalleled intelligence and is adept at crime-solving.

What’s interesting about Carne, though, is that he is both a criminal and a detective. While Sherlock often bends the law while solving crimes, Carne takes this to the next level. He literally occupies two houses, side-by-side, as mysterious detective Klimo, and as Simon Carne, an expert on Asian art and a sensation in London society. In his latter persona, Carne pulls off daring crimes, stealing precious belongings (including jewelry and a prized racehorse) from under his friends’ noses, while crafting the perfect alibi for himself and enjoying high society.

A Prince of Swindlers is a collection of Carne stories, and, to be honest, reading them all in a few sittings was overwhelming. One thing I disliked about the stories was the way that they were structured. In many of the cases, Carne explains exactly how he will solve/execute the crime before he actually goes through the procedure, which is also documented in detail by the narrator. Then, one of his socialite friends visits him after the fact, and narrate what has been said in the press about said crime. The repetition became irritating after a while. It also removed the aspect of mystery that I prefer when reading detective fiction. For example, in many Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes only explains his train of thought after he’s solved a crime, which keeps the reader engaged and wondering until the end. With Simon Carne, much of that mystery is gone.

However, there were other aspects of the stories that I enjoyed, especially the discussion of class in Victorian society. Carne is a criminal, but also a gentleman. He is a detective, but also a criminal. Through his many disguises, he is able to adopt the identities of a clergyman and an emperor, among others. He shows that with the right clothing and attitude, it is possible to transcend the strict Victorian class system.

Similarly, many of the stories hint at disapproval for the upper classes. One of the stories portrays one of Carne’s acquaintances, a lady of high social standing, organizing donations for a charitable cause. However, it also points out the hypocrisy of the upper classes, since despite being the organizer, the lady herself only contributed a minimal amount to the cause. The stories portray the upper classes as being hypocritical, superficial, and endowed with undeserved assets. Because of this, Carne’s stealing from them seems less immoral, and his cleverness makes the stories entertaining to read.

YES OR NO? I don’t have strong feelings about this collection of stories, so I would give this a MAYBE. Although this is a short read, I wouldn’t recommend reading all of the stories in one go, since many of the stories share similar details that can become repetitive.

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