Imprisoned in a remote Turkish prison 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.
Fox, however, goes far beyond Jones’s autobiographical account by enlarging its scope. She does this by interweaving two supplementary narrative threads that help explain why this improbable scam actually worked. First, at appropriate intervals, she reminds us of the era’s scientific and pseudoscientific beliefs, especially the vogue for spiritualism, telepathy and Ouija boards. Second, she links Jones and Hill’s ultimate success to their mastery of the deceptive skills and subtle mind games practiced by stage magicians, con artists and lawyers ... she never loosened her grip on my attention. Start The Confidence Men and you too will turn page after page, eager to find out what happens next ... The overall narrative gains richness, strength and a kind of polyphony by mixing Fox’s crisp exposition with quotations from Jones’s memoir and the reminiscences of other prisoners. Having been the senior obituary writer for the New York Times, Fox long ago learned the reader-appealing usefulness of the melodramatic sentence and weird anecdote ... exceptionally entertaining.
Fox’s book is less about war than the winding path home ... Much of the pleasure of The Confidence Men comes from the bewildering pluck of these young men of the empire ... Fox unspools Jones and Hill’s delightfully elaborate scheme in nail-biting episodes that advance like a narrative Rube Goldberg machine, gradually leading from Yozgad to freedom by way of secret codes, a hidden camera, buried clues, fake suicides and a lot of ingenious mumbo jumbo ... At moments, The Confidence Men has the high gloss of a story polished through years of telling and retelling. Indeed, Hill and Jones each wrote lively chronicles of the escape. To make the material her own, Fox inserts a fresh 'mystery' into the drama, namely: 'How in the world was this preposterous plan actually able to succeed?' Without breaking stride, she answers that question with brisk detours into mind control, telepathy, mentalism and the like.
Ms. Fox brings a deadpan touch to her story ... essentially a shaggy-dog thriller, so a tick-tock of their intricate scam with its twists and turns and near-disasters would cheat the reader ... The problem with The Confidence Men is that the core narrative, complicated as it is, could comfortably be told in half of Ms. Fox’s 238 pages ... Toward the end of her book, Ms. Fox devotes a chapter to recapitulating the elements of successful cons and hoaxes. Reading it, I was momentarily struck by the notion that The Confidence Men itself was an audacious meta-hoax—a scam book about a fictitious scam. So I googled Jones and Hill, found their entries—and satisfied myself that it was a just a good yarn. No fooling.