An African Millionaire by Grant Allen [Book Thoughts]

The rivalry between Charles and Colonel Clay and the witty schemes make An African Millionaire both funny and clever; a formidable combination.



Grant Allen doesn’t seem to be as well-known as other authors from his era but his talents show in An African Millionaire. It follows the story of Sir Charles Vandrift, a shrewd millionaire who’s made his fortune in the diamond mines of Africa and now spends his time in Europe doing what rich people do. Millionaire is told as a collection of short stories narrated by Charles’s brother-in-law and secretary, Seymour, that together form an overarching narrative about Charles’s battle with a con artist.

 In the first chapter, Charles is swindled out of £5000 by a seer who claims to be able to see the future. The ‘seer’ turns out to be the infamous Colonel Clay, a thief renowned for his many disguises and his penchant for robbing rich people and never getting caught. From then on, it’s one misadventure after another with Charles going on with his excessively decadent life (usually going on holiday or buying expensive things) and running into one of Colonel Clay’s schemes. Over the course of the story, Clay develops something of a fascination with Charles and promises to swindle him over and over again. His personality comes across strongly in their encounters and in the insulting letters he sends right after he’s managed to con Charles out of yet another large sum of money.

 While Colonel Clay is technically a villain and a thief, it’s hard not to root for him. He comes across as a man of class and his schemes are so ingenious that at the end of every chapter, you’re left shaking your head at how it’s all managed to come together. Clay comes in all manner of disguises and, between him and his partner, it’s difficult to work out who he is in each chapter until quite late in the book. As for Charles and Seymour, they start to develop an instinctive mistrust of anyone new they meet for fear that he might be the Colonel. This leads to some really comical mishaps and there are some truly laugh out loud moments in the book.

 But beneath the humour there’s a certain genius to the whole story. Each chapter is something of a mini mystery that reads like a chess game between Charles and Clay and the book plays as much with the reader as it does with Charles. That, and I suppose there’s also some kind of guilty pleasure in reading about an amoral and overconfident rich ass get swindled left, right and centre. The story does become a bit more serious in the end and tries to make something of a statement but, in my opinion, the last two chapters were the weakest. Maybe it’s because I enjoyed the preceding ones so much and I didn’t want the book to end but I found the conclusion to be quite unsatisfactory. Other than that, I have little cause for complaint.

The rivalry between Charles and Colonel Clay and the witty schemes make An African Millionaire both funny and clever; a formidable combination.

 See you next week


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