The Encyclopaedia of Liars and Deceivers, by Roelf Bolt. Reaktion Books, London (distributed in the U.S. by University of Chicago Press). Hardcover, 256 pages.
Reviewed by Dean Jobb
H.L. Mencken, that keen observer of human nature, once described lying as “necessary and unavoidable.” Half-truths and harmless fibs tend to make life easier. An honest answer to the question, “Should we spend the holidays with my family this year?” may not.
Dutch writer Roelf Bolt was more interested in whoppers – the big lies that separate fools from their money and the crackpot theories, miracle cures, hoaxes and academic frauds that have deluded countless trusting souls. The Encyclopaedia of Liars and Deceivers, his eclectic collection of 150 stories of fakers, forgers and con artists, offers enough cautionary tales to make anyone as cynical as Mencken.
Human beings “have an inherently problematic relationship with reality”
Bolt, who died at age 42 in 2012, a year after his Encyclopaedia was first published in Dutch, began clipping newspaper stories about frauds and deceptions as a child. He was fascinated with the audacity of liars and cheats and just as curious about the gullibility of the people they duped. The examples offered here – distilled from an astounding 1,400 cases he researched in his short lifetime – leave little doubt that human beings, as he put it, “have an inherently problematic relationship with reality.”
Other writers have compiled stories of con men and famous frauds, and some of the usual suspects appear here. Victor Lustig famously peddled the Eiffel Tower to Parisian scrap-metal dealers in the 1920s. George C. Parker even more famously sold and resold the Brooklyn Bridge to immigrants newly arrived at Ellis Island. In the 1970s novelist Clifford Irving seduced publishers with the “autobiography” of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. And excerpts from Hitler’s diaries appeared in a German magazine and a London newspaper in 1983 before they were exposed as an elaborate hoax.
There are a few unexpected cameos. Hitler claims the first entry, as the target of another lie – during the Second World War a British counter-espionage agent with a sense of humor forged a passport that identified him as a Jewish painter hoping to emigrate to Palestine. The early Greek astronomer Ptolemy passed off someone else’s stellar observations as his own. And who knew that Albert Einstein fudged the results of an early experiment on magnetism?
Bolt presents an array of lesser-known liars who bent the truth to get ahead or to escape their boring routines. A teenaged immigrant from Iran posed as the nephew of directorSteven Spielberg to win a spot at an exclusive American high school. When Rosemary Brown was not working in a London school cafeteria, she was at her piano and channeling new works by Liszt, Chopin and other long-dead composers. Music experts dismissed her as a fraud and Bolt suspects Brown, a recent widow “with very little to look forward to,” had resolved “to create a more significant life for herself.”
Along the way Bolt skewers the Vatican (for touting miracles and canonizing some unsaintly figures), eBay (“a godsend for forgers”), Mormons, the pseudo-scientists who theorize about ancient aliens and even the producers of basmati rice (a 2003 study found that almost half the brands sold in Britain were mixed with cheaper varieties). He reserves a special place in his hall of shame for the quacks who prey on the desperation of the sick and dying.
“Deception is endemic to our society,” he concludes. “We live in a world that favours achievers, and who can say that they have never bent the truth a little to create that impression?” The author declares his own guilt. As a student, he cheated on an economics exam, a minor transgression that nonetheless helped him to become a university instructor.
Most people lie for an obvious reason: money. Selling landmarks and faking credentials can be a lucrative business, and art forgers have made millions of dollars by emulating the Great Masters. But there are other motives to deceive. A surprising number of academics and writers have submitted nonsense to journals and publishers they considered pretentious, for no other reason than to gloat once their words appeared in print. And some liars are victims of their own lies. The “discoverers” of cold fusion in 1989 were so convinced they had found the secret to cheap, limitless power that they neglected to conduct the follow-up tests that ultimately exposed their results as false.
While this is a book about deception, don’t let the title fool you. It’s a collection of tales well-told, not a dry reference work. Bolt’s wry humor shines through, as does his passion for his subjects and their devious ways. It’s an engrossing, addictive read. Take my word for it.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception, the true story of a master swindler who scammed the elite of 1920s Chicago (Algonquin Books & HarperCollins Canada)