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The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, by Margalit Fox, Random House, New York, $28

Had author Margalit Fox presented this story to an editor as fiction, it would have been rejected out of hand. From the unlikely cast of characters to the improbable deus ex machina that drives the plot, it is unbelievable. An award-winning linguist and historian who cut her chops writing for the New York Times obit department, Fox has sunk her teeth into a whopper of a World War I tale here. And it’s all true.

Imprisoned in a Turkish POW camp in Anatolia, British officers Harry Jones and Cedric Hill work up a mind reading and magic show to entertain their fellow captives. They succeed so well, they can’t dissuade their audience it’s a ruse. Rumors run through the guards to camp commander Kiazom Bey, who demands Jones and Hill perform for him. Impressed, he enlists the pair in his quest to find gold rumored to have been buried by Armenians before they were expelled from the region. Resolving to exploit his greed and naivete to facilitate their escape, Jones and Hill make “contact” with an Armenian in the spirit world who will only reveal the location of the gold if the pair are on the open sea. Kiazom Bey buys it, and the trio sets off for the coast—Kiazom Bey to seek his fortune, Jones and Hill their freedom. Not improbably, the odyssey ends in failure, and Jones and Hill are forced to resort to an even zanier Plan B.

This is simply the most entertaining military history I have read in years.

The Confidence Men

How two prisoners of war engineered the most remarkable escape in history.
By Margalit Fox, Random House, New York, $28

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