It is possible to understand the motivation of the fraudster who stands to get filthy rich if he can pull it off – say, Bernie Madoff – or who urgently needs to cover his backside when things go wrong – think Nick Leeson. As they say,behind every great fortune lies a great crime.
It becomes a little harder to fathom the actions of someone with more abstruse motives. Such is the case with Robert Parkin Peters, who spent the entirety of a long life attempting to insinuate himself into religious and university posts for which he lacked any qualification.
His relentless efforts – the dizzying extent he went to, again and again – to set himself up as a figure of repute in universities and churches of various denominations across the planet, only to be caught out in a matter of weeks or months each time, form the basis of The Professor & The Parson, A Story of Desire, Deceit & Defrocking, by Adam Sisman.
Sisman, a biographer by trade, whose subjects include John le Carré and AJP Taylor, encountered Peters’ story while researching a book on Hugh Trevor-Roper, the historian perhaps best known today for his authentication of the Hitler Diaries, which were subsequently revealed to be forgeries.
Among Trevor-Roper’s papers was a bulky dossier on Peters, who was revealed as a defrocked Anglican minister, a failed academic, a serial bigamist and something of a tabloid darling. Short, fat and bespectacled, Peters travelled the globe with one wife or other in tow, securing positions for himself in churches and eminent academic institutions in the UK, US, Canada and Australia. Whenever his deceit was uncovered, he would up sticks overnight and head for a new country or even continent, often with a new wife, to start over.
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One of the joys of this short and entertaining book is the delight Trevor-Roper took in tracking his quarry’s whereabouts over 25 years – and his mischievous pleasure in seeing pompous and fusty institutions horribly embarrassed by such a brazen impostor. “As a responsible academic, he was appalled by Peters’ success in outwitting the authorities; but as an individual who delighted in the comedie humaine, he could not help being amused by it,” writes Sisman.
Why did Peters do it? The book can’t fully answer that question, but posits that a difficult childhood and a personality disorder left him obsessed with the rituals of church and gown, and the need to secure elevated status. Could he get away with it in today’s hyper-connected world, I wonder?
That trick – getting away with it when everyone’s watching, all the time – is at the heart of the latest novel from Oliver Harris. Harris has taken a break from his wonderful London crime series starring the manic but brilliant detective Nick Belsey to delve into the world of MI6 in this technological age. Set between Kazakhstan and London, A Shadow Intelligence lacks the charismatic, chaotic heights of the Belsey books, but is an intelligent and thoroughly researched spy-procedural giving razor-sharp insight into the particular challenges of 21st-century espionage.
The Professor and the Parson – A Story of Desire, Deceit & Defrocking, by Adam Sisman (Profile Books, £12.99)
A Shadow Intelligence, by Oliver Harris (Little, Brown £14.99)