The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Get (in) right back where we started from

Get in

Ooo and it’s alright and it’s comin’ ‘long

We got to get right back to where we started from

Love is good, love can be strong

We got to get right back to where we started from

 

Oh-ohhhhh

Do you remember that day

(That sunny day)

When you first came my way

I said no one could take your place

And if you get hurt

(If you get hurt)

By the little things I say

I can put that smile back on your face.

 

Maxine Gayle, Right Back Where We Started (1975)

One week after I sent the manuscript of The Prince of Tricksters off to my publisher at the University of Chicago Press and my thoughts have gone right back to where we started from several years ago.

I do remember that day, when Netley Lucas first came my way. It wasn’t sunny though. It was late-October – a few days after my birthday – and the leaves were turning on a nondescript grey autumnal day. Killing time in the British Library waiting for a train to Liverpool, and trying to avoid reading any more Edwardian romantic fiction, I called up the memoirs of a senior police officer who ran the Met’s “confidence squad” in the 1920s and 1930s.

That’s where I saw him. You can see my excitement rising in the notes I typed up that afternoon – the capital letters, all those exclamation marks, the repeated refrain GET IN GET IN GET IN. The first get-in marks the point when my hunch that the confidence trickster was a characteristic figure of the Great War’s aftermath is ventriloquised in a primary source. In the second, third, fourth, and fifth, I see now the moment when Netley Lucas – the man I’ve spent so many years working – came into my life on pages 184-92 of a detective’s reminiscences.

“There’s something big here,” I wrote in my notes. I had forgotten doing this until today, but even then I seemed to have some idea of the rich possibilities contained in the flamboyant lies and lives of a confidence trickster, crime writer, and royal biographer. As excited as I was back then, in hindsight I had no idea just how big this would become – all those ways in which Netley would come to assume a place in my life that no one could take away. Love is good, and our affair has come along a long way since then.

I never meant to fall for him; I never meant to write a book about one man. Then I was looking for any confidence men and women: material for a larger project on crimes of confidence and deception between the wars. It’s strange how the pathways of our research can take such unexpected turns.

These notes mark the day that I was first conscious that Netley had come my way. Much of my excitement comes from the fact that we had met before, however. That encounter made little impression on me, until a chance moment meant I began to glimpse how two short reports in the Empire News of a gentleman crook’s arrest in 1920 were only the beginnings of something much bigger.

It’s coming along, isn’t it Netley? Now that I’ve said all this things about you in a book, it’s good to get right back to where we started from.

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