REVIEW: The Confidence Men by Margalit Fox
The astonishing true story of two World War I prisoners who pulled off one of the most ingenious escapes of all time.
Imprisoned in a remote Turkish POW camp during World War I, having survived a two-month forced march and a terrifying shootout in the desert, two British officers, Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, join forces to bamboozle their iron-fisted captors. To stave off despair and boredom, Jones takes a handmade Ouija board and fakes elaborate séances for his fellow prisoners. Word gets around, and one day an Ottoman official approaches Jones with a query: Could Jones contact the spirit world to find a vast treasure rumored to be buried nearby? Jones, a trained lawyer, and Hill, a brilliant magician, use the Ouija board—and their keen understanding of the psychology of deception—to build a trap for their captors that will ultimately lead them to freedom.
A gripping nonfiction thriller, The Confidence Men is the story of one of the only known con games played for a good cause—and of a profound but unlikely friendship. Had it not been for “the Great War,” Jones, the Oxford-educated son of a British lord, and Hill, a mechanic on an Australian sheep ranch, would never have met. But in pain, loneliness, hunger, and isolation, they formed a powerful emotional and intellectual alliance that saved both of their lives.
Margalit Fox brings her “nose for interesting facts, the ability to construct a taut narrative arc, and a Dickens-level gift for concisely conveying personality” (Kathryn Schulz, New York) to this tale of psychological strategy that is rife with cunning, danger, and moments of high farce that rival anything in Catch-22.
Dear Ms. Fox,
Once I had seen this blurb, I simply had to read the book and find out how two men had pulled off the feat mentioned. But there’s a lot more to the book than that. It’s not only how the men managed to work their “long con” game but also why it worked in that particular time and place in history.
The time is early in World War I and the place is actually the lesser known Middle Eastern front. Two men who had never met ended up in one particular POW camp in a mountainous and desolate area of Turkey. Though conditions eventually, after long and arduous journeys there and initial inhospitable accommodations, became liveable, Jones and Hill wanted that which they could never have in the camp – freedom. They wanted it so badly that when opportunity presented an idea and a sliver of a chance, the two worked together to pull off what is known among real “confidence men” as “the long con.”
The long con is a carefully planned, meticulously constructed, ruthlessly examined and reworked trick to get the “mark” to fall in with the con man’s plans. In this case, the mark was the POW camp commandant along with his interpreter and a cook. The plan was for Hill and Jones to not actually escape over a wall or through a tunnel but to be escorted to freedom by the very men who had been keeping them prisoners. At stake was more than their freedom as POWs had been warned that any attempt at escape would result in harsh punishment for the escapees as well as those POWs still in the camp. In addition, Hill had also given his parole to his own superior offices not to attempt leaving due to the risk of group punishment.
The plan was amazingly elaborate and was played out over not only months but more than a year during which Hill and Jones had to manage to fool their fellow POWs as well as their captors. During this time, the two juggled many balls to lure the Turks into doing what they wanted them to while also getting proof of the Turks’ complicity that could be used to shield the remaining POWs.
How did it all work? Much of what allowed the con to get Hill and Jones where they wanted to be – out of the camp and home – would not have been feasible at any other time. A renewed belief in spiritualism plus the scientific achievements of the late 19th and early 20th century actually melded together to get the con to come together according to plan. But it was their hard work, ruthless determination, endurance, and friendship that saw them through. I was also interested to see the reason why Jones wrote his post experience memoir as it called to mind Simon St. James’ book “The Other Side of Midnight.” B
Nice review. Spoilery questions (use a spoiler warning when answering): How long did their friendship last? Did they keep in touch after the war? And were their fellow prisoners punished once the marks realized they’d been conned?
Their friendship lasted long after the war. Jones unfortunately died in the 1940s but Hill lived into the 70s. Their fellow prisoners weren’t punished because Jones and Hill kept up the con after they got out of the camp. That didn’t happen as they initially planned so they had to keep up their ruse for six more months before finally being sent back to the UK via a prisoner exchange.