Newton and the Counterfeiter recounts an unlikely period in the life of Sir Isaac Newton: discoverer of gravity, closet alchemist, and, yes, kick-ass cop. In the late 17th Century, England’s economy was in shambles, thanks in part to a wave of counterfeiting large enough to prompt the government to recall all the realm’s silver coins, melt them down, and re-stamp it into more complex designs in an attempt to put counterfeiters out of business. Newton was universally considered an expert in just about everything, and was, therefore, as good a candidate as any to run the mint during this huge undertaking. And so, in 1696, Newton took the job as Warden of the Mint.
Enter William Chaloner, counterfeiter. Using as his main source a biography of Chaloner, written and published by an anonymous author at the end of the 17th Century, Levenson breathes life into a man whose ambition, smarts, opportunism, and plain old nerve dwarfed those of most criminals from his day—and he shows that the criminal-class scumbag has not evolved a whole lot in 300 years. Minus his English accent, Chaloner would fit right in with the goombahs lounging around of any one north Jersey’s Italian “social clubs.” In fact, he would probably be running the place within a week.
One duty of Warden of the Mint was to enforce all laws committed against the king’s currency, so when some stamping dies went missing from the mint, Newton was in charge of tracking them down. He jumped into this task with the same verve with which he had taken on the mysteries of gravity. Newton had a natural talent for criminal investigation, and he had the stomach for it, too.
Newton deployed an army of undercover agents into counterfeiting rings, personally interrogated suspects, and used the system to his advantage whenever he could. (The penalty for counterfeiting was death, so he had plenty of leverage.) The scientist often outwitted and outmaneuvered his suspects, who eventually led him to Chaloner. The counterfeiter didn’t go down without a fight, though. Levenson’s detailed account of the subsequent cat-and-mouse between Newton and Chaloner is the fastest-moving and most exciting part of the book.
The story almost sounds made up, especially given the publishing trend these days. (The author of the bestselling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is reportedly working on a “biography” of Abraham Lincoln—as president, commander-in-chief, and vampire slayer.) But Newton and the Counterfeiter is no fiction. It’s a fun read that takes you to a time and place where true-crime readers have never been.
—DwyerPost Categories: Book Reviews, Crime & Justice
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