Don’t Call Me A Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky and Crime by Bob Moore (Dissident Books, New York 2009) is apparently a reprint of a tome first published in 1935 by Hurst & Blackkett of London without the exclamation mark; and the variant subtitle My True Autobiography. When I first read the introduction to this ‘reprint’, I suspected Dissident Books CEO Nicholas Towasser was pulling my leg over the provenance of the text when he wrote: “There mustn’t have been many copies printed (of the original edition), because despite many Web searches, I’ve found no used book dealers selling it. In fact, I’ve located only five owners of the original Hurst & Blackett edition: the New York Public Library; the National Library of Scotland; Cambridge University; Random House (years ago Random House acquired a publisher named Hutchinson, who had earlier merged with Hurst & Blackett); and a woman in Essex, England.”
Towasser’s claims immediately sound suspicious to anyone familiar with the legal deposit system for books in the UK. British publishers are required by law to send free copies of their books to the five legal deposit libraries in the UK (supplying the national library in Dublin is currently optional but many publishers still send them complimentary tomes). Towasser mentions only two of the legal deposit libraries (Edinburgh and Cambridge), and it struck me as unlikely that more than half the legal deposit copies of a book like Moore’s would have disappeared from these orderly and well maintained institutions. My gut feeling was that if the book couldn’t be found in at least the majority of the legal deposit libraries, then the provenance Towasser provided for it in his introduction was at best dubious. I checked at the British Library and found they did in fact have a catalogue entry for the Hurst & Blackkett edition of Don’t Call Me A Crook. Of course, entries can be forged, and even whole books produced with fake publishing histories and then slipped into library collections. However, the most likely explanation seems to be that Towasser isn’t familiar with the UK legal deposit system and therefore didn’t think to check with the relevant libraries (which isn’t difficult, anyone with internet access can consult the British Library catalogue via its online service).
Likewise, when I checked online, I found an entry for the Hurst & Blackkett edition of Moore’s book on both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, from which one can conclude that at least one used dealer has offered the book for sale via those sites. These amazon entries may have gone up after Towasser wrote his introduction, or he may have missed them. Since I found evidence of further copies and online sales in the first three places I looked, I didn’t pursue the matter. Regardless of whether Don’t Call Me A Crook was first published in 1935 or the ‘original’ edition was faked later (still possible but rather unlikely on the basis of what I’ve found), it is fairly safe to conclude there will probably be entries for further copies of the ’1935′ edition in the legal deposit libraries I haven’t checked, and that a search of online auction sites such as eBay may turn up further evidence of a used trade in the ’1935′ edition.
I’m a huge fan of literary fraud and I always appreciate a good leg-pull. I’d rather like Don’t Call Me A Crook to be con job involving a faked provenance; hi-jinx that would place it on the same level as ‘anti-literary greats’ such as the cod medieval works Thomas Chatterton attributed to Thomas Rowley, James Macpherson’s bogus cycle of Gaelic poetry credited to a non-existent ancient bard called Ossian, and Clifford Irving’s phony ‘autobiography’ of Howard Hughes. For me, more recent incidents of literary fraud, including Laura Albert’s J. T. LeRoy hoax and James Frey passing off works of fiction as memoirs, are considerably less thrilling than chicanery that entails concocting more complex counterfeit attributions for pieces of writing. Sadly, despite Towasser raising my hopes with what I take to be honestly made but improbable claims in his introduction, it does rather look like Don’t Call Me A Crook was first published by Hurst & Blackkett in 1935.
Nonetheless, despite being published as a non-fiction ‘memoir’, Moore’s book resembles a picaresque novel and its literary origins can be traced back to Elizabethan works such as The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene’s cony-catching pamphlets. Moore tells us little about his childhood, his story really begins when he joins the British military underage in the hope of seeing action in World War I. He ended up greasing aeroplanes for the Royal Flying Corps at a base near Boulogne. Moore tells us that after the war he qualified as a mechanical engineer. From that point on he mostly worked on ships, but combined this activity with maintaining hotel lifts and other odd jobs. Moore criss-crossed the Atlantic, spending a lot of time in New York and Chicago, where he combined bouts of employment with opportunist thievery and con-artistry. When he comes into large amounts of money, he inevitably blows it on high-living (with women, boozing and gambling, being his favoured recreational divertissements).
Mirroring Robert Greene’s real and ‘fictionalised’ life, Moore abandons his wife and child and adopts a sardonic attitude towards the world, which he combines with endless serious drinking. Imagine Celine if he’d had a working-class upbringing in Glasgow and no interest in literary posturing. That said, Moore’s anti-semitism and other bigotries are casual, and not ideologically motivated. Moore reflects the prejudices of his time and place without consciously embracing any overt political ideology; this contrasts sharply with the fascist stink that envelopes Celine’s writing. Perhaps Bukowski makes for a better comparison, except Moore is better than Bukowski.
Despite its casual racism, the Chinese setting of Moore’s ‘autobiography’ in its final section makes for very interesting reading. From Shanghai he travels up the Yangtze, where he battles river pirates. This part really rams home the parallels between Moore’s book and The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton (1594) by Thomas Nashe. The narrator of the earlier work, Jack Wilton, relates his adventures as a page during the wars against the French, and subsequent travels in Italy where he serves the Earl of Surrey. Wilton witnesses numerous atrocities, he narrowly escapes both being hanged and cut-up alive as an exercise in anatomy. His tale climaxes by detailing the brutal revenge of one Italian against another. Wilton eventually escapes from the clutches of his foes and returns to England.
Moore’s tale very much mirrors The Unfortunate Traveller; his first ‘foreign’ experiences are in France, but he substitutes the ‘savagery’ of Nashe’s caricatured Italians for an equally stereotypical Orientalism. Moore describes various forms of Chinese ‘cruelty’, ranging from deliberately drawn out public executions down to unnecessarily vicious acts of banditry. He is nearly killed on a number of occasions, is kidnapped by pirates but eventually escapes and returns to Glasgow. Moore and/or his ‘editor’ (perhaps ghost-writer) Pat Spry need not have read Nashe’s text to have been influenced by it. The Unfortunate Traveller is a foundational work of modern English prose, its influence has been widely felt and its structure can be picked up from later tales it influenced.
To me it isn’t important how much of Moore’s book is true, it’s a fast and fun read. My guess is that the book is loosely based on fact but the adventures are exaggerated to maximise their impact. If you like over-cooked and not entirely reliable ‘memoirs’ such as Jungle West 11 by Majbritt Morrison, or even Mr Nice by Howard Marks, then you’ll love Don’t Call Me A Crook too!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!