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Prince of Tricksters

The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook

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.

448 pages | 19 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biography and Letters

History: British and Irish History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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

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’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

“Deeply researched, theoretically sophisticated, and beautifully written.”

American Literary History

“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

“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

“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

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

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

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

Chapter 1 The Aristocrat of Crooks
Chapter 2 A Curious Kink in the Character

Part 2 Selling Selves: Ghosts and Life Stories

Chapter 3 The Ex-crook Who Has Now Taken Up the Pen
Chapter 4 The Comic Book Criminologist
Chapter 5 Ghosts and Their Doings

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

Chapter 6 Writing Royal Lives
Chapter 7 The Courtier and the Con Man
Chapter 8 Stunts and Scandals

Part 4 Denouement

Chapter 9 My Selves

Cooling Out: Has the World Changed, or Have I Changed?


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