Sunday, March 10, 2013

A con artist and his victims

An African Millionaire, Grant Allen

I added a copy of this to my TBR stacks after reading a review on Desperate Reader last year.  I wanted to meet "literature's first gentleman rogue."  Actually, I thought I already had, since I'd recently read E.W. Hornung's Raffles stories for the first time.  But I learned that Grant Allen's stories were published before Hornung's, in The Strand Magazine in 1896-1897 (and later in book form).  Hayley recently posted about another of Allen's books, Miss Cayley's Adventures, which sounds even more intriguing, and has also taken its place on the shelves.  It is one of the books that has most tempted my Double Dog Dare resolve, until I remembered that the whole point of the Dare is to read the books already on the shelves before starting new ones.

The linked stories in An African Millionaire are narrated by Seymour Wentworth, the brother-in-law and confidential secretary to the millionaire of the title, Sir Charles Vandrift, a native of South Africa.  His fortune is built on diamond mines on his estate near the famous Kimberley mines, and he has increased it substantially through a successful career as a financier.  In addition to his South African properties, he has a house in London and an estate in Scotland.  Seymour and his wife Isabel, Sir Charles's sister, live with him and his wife Amelia, joining them on their frequent travels.

As the first story opens, the two men are on their own for a little vacation in Monte Carlo.  They're actually staying in Nice though, since "Sir Charles thinks Monte Carlo is not a sound address for a financier's letters."  I enjoyed Seymour's sly side comments.  It's clear that he doesn't always enjoy working for his brother-in-law, and despite the perks, it certainly doesn't pay as well as he'd like.  It is in Nice that they first encounter the con artist and thief known across Europe as "Colonel Clay."  That meeting leaves Sir Charles £5,000 poorer and hardly any wiser. In the stories that follow he falls again and again for elaborate cons, despite everything he and Seymour can do to protect themselves.  They become increasingly paranoid, suspecting all kinds of people of being Colonel Clay or his assistants in disguise.  And when their precautions fail, as they regularly do, Sir Charles is apt to receive a snarky letter from Clay, exulting over his victim.  At the end of one adventure, where the Colonel has revealed himself, he tells Sir Charles that he isn't just in it for the money:
'Regard me, my dear sir, as a microbe of millionaires, a parasite upon capitalists . . . You possess, like a mosquito, a beautiful instrument of suction - Founders' Shares - with which you absorb the surplus wealth of the community. In my smaller way, again, I relieve you in turn of a portion of the plunder.  I am a Robin Hood of my age; and, looking upon you as an exceptionally bad form of millionaire - as well as an exceptionally easy form of pigeon for a man of my type and talents to pluck - I have, so to speak, taken up my abode upon you.'
According to the introduction, Clay reflects Grant Allen's own socialist beliefs, as "an emblem of the oppressed working class, [who] triumphs time and again against his idiotic counterpart . . . emblematic of the obtuse capitalist exploiter..."  He is also a great character, reveling in his pranks and tricks, a master of disguise, a convincing actor, a quick thinker who can talk his way out of almost any awkward situation - rather Lymondesque at times.

Lest we feel conflicted about rooting for the thief and con man, Sir Charles isn't a completely innocent victim.  We see him act dishonestly in the course of the cons, and greed draws him into others.  He thinks he is up to all the tricks, but he comes across as a bit dull-witted.  He is also fatally susceptible to flirtations with personable young women.  Seymour has his own weakness: as confidential secretary and advisor, he has opportunities to make money on the side, one of which gives the Colonel a hold over him that he doesn't hesitate to use.

These stories really are great fun, and they're available free on line, thanks to Project Gutenberg, as well as in a Penguin edition.  I'm looking forward more than ever now to Miss Cayley's adventures.


  1. I'm looking forward to this one, as I *loved* Miss Cayley's Adventures (also found through Hayley's recommendation).

  2. vicki, I'm glad to hear that you loved Miss Cayley - it's on the top of my list after this challenge is over. I think you'll really like Colonel Clay's adventures!

  3. I've never heard of Grant Allen, but this sounds really amusing! Colonel Clay is one slippery character.

  4. I've never heard of these books either, but I'm so looking forward to reading them now! The tone of that letter from Colonel Clay is wonderful.

  5. Anbolyn, Grant Allen seems to have been quite a character, with wide-ranging interests, and he wrote a LOT of books, most of which have disappeared. And see, here's the lighter side of the Victorians :)

    elizabeth, isn't it fun discovering a new author? I wish there were more adventures of Colonel Clay!

  6. I hadn't heard of Grant Allen either, and it's a very Scottish name. Thanks for the info, I'll be visiting Project Gutenberg - again.

  7. Katrina, he was from Canada but could well have been of Scots descent. I think you'll enjoy this!

  8. I loved Miss Cayley and this sounds wonderful. Another book for the wishlist!

  9. Another vote for Miss Cayley! Jane, I'm more convinced than ever that I'm going to love her too.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!