Picks and Pans Review: The Napoleon of Crime: the Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief

updated 10/27/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/27/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Ben Macintyre

The inspiration for Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes's arch-nemesis, was a slight, dapper Civil War deserter who came to New York City and quickly rose from pickpocket to criminal mastermind. Adam Worth, the son of German Jewish immigrants, was a man of principle. He ruled out violence, refused to prey on the poor and treated the robbing of banks as if it were an intellectual problem. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Red Headed League is a replay of the memorable heist Worth engineered at Boston's Boylston National Bank in 1876.

Ben Macintyre's biography of Worth has more than a touch of romance. Worth and a pal set up a ménage à trois with Kitty Farrell, the love of Worth's life, who was a waitress in Liverpool when she met him and a Manhattan society queen when she died. His greatest criminal exploit was the theft of Thomas Gainsborough's renowned portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, an 18th-century collateral ancestor of Princess Diana's. Done while a night watchman slept, the daring grab was the talk of London for years. The portrait ended up in the hands of J.P. Morgan, the Napoleon of Wall Street. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

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