Conning the booktrade connoisseurs

Literary scandals – like actual scandals – come and go. Who now recalls, or indeed cares less about, the hoo-ha surrounding whether or not the professional huckster James Frey made stuff up in his much celebrated 2004 memoir A Million Little Pieces and then had the audacity to lie about it to Oprah Winfrey? Anyone remember JT LeRoy? Binjamin Wilkomirski? Authorship debates, accusations of plagiarism, obscenity controversies, way-out wacky and appalling author behaviour, rivalries, forgeries – they all tend to be storms in teeny-tiny, super-fragile, already half-cracked literary teacups that soon subside and slip from the gossip columns and the culture pages to become the subject matter merely of obscure

Where is Ruja Ignatova, the self-styled cryptoqueen, hiding?

This is a depressing book. It’s a reminder of everything that is sick, broken and generally maledicted about the human condition. It’s also a book based on a podcast, which brings difficulties of its own. To cut a very long story short, The Missing Cryptoqueen tells the true story of a Bulgarian crook named Ruja Ignatova, the self-styled cryptoqueen of the book’s title. In 2014, she set up a pyramid scheme-cum-multi-level-marketing scam based on a fake cryptocurrency called OneCoin. In 2017, having swindled people out of billions of pounds, dollars, euros and just about every other currency on the planet, and with the authorities closing in, Ignatova suddenly went missing.

Letters: Banning Russia’s culture only benefits Putin

Don’t ban Russia’s culture Sir: It is uncouth, illiterate and actually beneficial to Putin when theatres, opera houses and other cultural institutions in Britain and across the globe block access to these heights of culture (‘Theatre of war’, 14 May). During Stalin’s last decade and throughout the Cold War, Isaiah Berlin was a superb help to this country and to Russia through his connection with Anna Akhmatova, including the award to her of an honorary doctorate at New College, Oxford, in June 1965, the year before her death. Censorship and blocking of the free flow of culture between Russia and western society is what the Soviet Union enforced. It was

Fraud victim? Don’t bank on getting your money back

Lloyds Bank has been running a new advertising campaign which updates its long-standing black horse corporate branding. The horses no longer thunder along a beach, but interact with people who we assume are actual or potential customers. The soothing payoff slogan goes: ‘Lloyds Bank. By your side.’ The latest episode features a girl who slightly puts me in mind of our 17-year-old daughter. She happens to bank with Lloyds, but there the happy parallel ends. On a Saturday afternoon in March, a person unknown withdrew £440 from our daughter’s account via an ATM. At that precise time, our daughter was playing her clarinet during an audition for a London orchestra.

The fall guy: Tom Hayes, Libor and a miscarriage of justice

In August 2015, Tom Hayes, then aged 34, was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment after being found guilty on eight charges of conspiracy to commit fraud when working as a yen derivatives trader in Tokyo. Hayes was alleged by the Serious Fraud Office to be the grand ‘ringmaster’ of a group of traders who sought to enrich their banks and themselves by rigging Libor, the rate charged for interbank loans. His sentence was reduced to 11 years on appeal but it is still one of the longest–ever jail sentences handed out by a British court for a white-collar crime. A subsequent court hearing ordered the seizure of assets worth more

Horrifying but gripping: Netflix’s The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman reviewed

It’s 1993 and you’re studying at a top agricultural college with a bright future ahead of you, perhaps in farming or land management, when a chance conversation with a barman all but ruins your life. The barman tells you that he is an agent working for MI5, spying on an IRA cell in college, one of whose members happens to be your flatmate. You might be sceptical but the agent is very persuasive; and besides, someone from your college has indeed just been arrested for supplying bomb-making equipment to the IRA. When the agent warns you that you and your flatmates are in serious danger and must go on the

Glasgow gangsters: 1979, by Val McDermid, reviewed

Like a basking shark, Val McDermid once remarked, a crime series needs to keep moving or die. The same could be said of crime writers themselves, who work in a genre that has an inbuilt tendency to encourage repetition, often with dreary results in the long term. McDermid herself, however, has a refreshing habit of rarely treading water for long. Over the past 34 years, she’s published four very different crime series, a clutch of standalones, two books for children, a modern reworking of Northanger Abbey, and several non-fiction titles. And now comes 1979, the first in a planned five-book series set at ten-year intervals up to the present. It’s

W.G. Sebald’s borrowed truths and barefaced lies

W.G. Sebald is the modern master of the uncanny — or perhaps that should be ‘was’, as he died in a car crash near Norwich in 2001 at the age of 57. Deciding which tense to use depends on whether you mean ‘W.G. Sebald’ as a shorthand for his body of work, which outlives him, or to refer to the man who wrote it, known to his acquaintances as Max. The question poses its own Sebaldian conundrum, reflecting his strange crepuscular writings with their meditations on the dead and the living, past and present, culture and identity. His ghost lives on in the flickering half-light, the most enigmatic, perhaps, of

The disappearing man: who was the real John Stonehouse?

November 1974 was the month to disappear. On the 7th, Lord Lucan went missing, and a fortnight later John Stonehouse MP dis-appeared from a beach in Miami. Lucan was never found, so remains prominent in our national mythology. Nothing endures like a mystery. Stonehouse, on the other hand, was discovered in Melbourne six weeks later, living under an assumed name. His vanishing trick, so carefully rehearsed, had unravelled — partly due to Lucan, as it happened. Having been alerted to a suspicious Briton by a beady bank clerk, the Australian police thought he might be Lucan. Their first act after arresting their suspect was to lift his trouser leg to

Is any song more lucrative than ‘Happy Birthday’?

Last orders The new tier restrictions have made life difficult for pubs. How many are closed? — According to the British Beer and Pub Association, 16,500 of England’s 37,000 pubs have had to close for everything except takeaway owing to their being in Tier 3 areas. — Of the 21,000 pubs in Tier 2 areas, 14,000 have had to remain closed because they are unviable if they can’t serve drinkers without also serving a substantial meal. — That leaves 732 pubs in Tier 1 areas which can open more or less as normal. — The number of pubs has fallen by 22 per cent this century. However, 2019 saw the

A 13th-century guide to fraud and skulduggery

Eight centuries ago in Turkey, at a gathering of intellectuals, a Muslim sultan insisted that one of his courtiers write a book about an unlikely subject: thieves and con artists. The sultan, Rukn al-Din, had secured another such book from Spain, but he wondered: ‘What’s left out of it?’ The set-upon courtier was Jamal al-Din Abd al-Rahim al-Jawbari, and the commissioned Arabic work, Kashf al-asrar (Exposing Secrets), his only surviving text. But why would a powerful ruler such as Rukn al-Din, presumably safe from street-level scammers, order a guidebook about the medieval Islamic underworld? The answer is most likely nostalgie de la boue — a way, as Tom Wolfe was

The UK isn’t taking the risk of contact tracing fraud seriously

Experts have a get-out clause of which politicians can only dream when they are speaking from the podium at press briefings. While ministers are expected to be able to answer questions on any matter, there and then, and have details at their fingertips, advisors can escape most tricky questions with a simple few words: that’s outside my area of expertise. That makes it all the more baffling that when asked by journalists about the risk of fraudsters exploiting the government’s new track and trace system, not one, but two deputy chief medical officers decided to comment and belittle the risks involved. Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries was particularly sanguine.