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  • Review: The Great Pretenders June 24, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Don’t tell Mrs B but Beachcombing is presently suffering from a rather silly teenage crush. The subject of his desire is a Scandinavia rheumatologist named Jan Bondeson who writes books in his spare time about strange things. It all began last month. Beachcombing bought twenty odd different volumes from various online sources – several of them blind – and when they had finally arrived at the family mansion he was shocked to discover that three – a book on being buried alive, a book on bizarre dog stories, and the subject of the present review, The Great Pretenders – were by the same author. What range! Beachcombing’s well-established and entirely justified loathing for the white coats was ameliorated – though it will return… – and Beach found himself scribbling fond sonnets on the back of students’ exams.

    All three books are worth reading, but the best of this trio was, to Beachcombing’s mind, The Great Pretenders or as Norton the publishing house sold it The Great Pretenders: The True Stories Behind Famous Historical Mysteries (2004). As Beachcombing has to go off and ‘insert’ tiny Mrs B into the local nursery – essentially he has to hang around outside for two hours in case the little one cries – he will, perforce,  be brief. But this volume invites brevity describing and analyzing through three hundred pages some classic impostor cases from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Louis XVII, Kaspar Hauser, Alexander I, Princess Olive, Hannah Lightfoot, George Rex, the Tichborne Claimant and ‘the Duke’ of Baker Street.

    The author resisted the temptation – just before reading The Great Pretenders Beachcombing fell straight into this elephant trap – of going back into classical and medieval times and looking for false claimants there. He avoided too most of the twentieth-century claimants – Anastasia barely figures. The result is a more homogenous, less messy book that would otherwise have been the case.  The danger, of course, is that each chapter will be repetitive. But JB is equal to this and manages to tell what is essentially the same tale again and again and yet keeps it interesting: man disappears from prominent family, ten years pass, impostor arrives claiming to be missing man, all hell breaks loose in the press and the courts, impostor unmasked…

    It works partly because it is fun to see JB pick apart the various claimant cases – the odds that JB is a good doctor are high. And it works partly because there is so much colour: how could it be otherwise? Beach’s absolute favourite passages were what might be called ‘the meeting of the claimants’. Several of the missing heirs produced not one but a number of claimants. This meant that on occasion one false claimant found himself in the same room as another false claimant. In the case of the Tichborne Claimant this led, predictably enough, to a shouting match. When two of the claimants to the French throne met they, instead, happily reminisced about their shared childhood!

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for books on the bizarre. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com