A really great escape : The Confidence Men : How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History by Margalit Fox.

Margalit Fox, a former senior obituary writer for The New York Times and the author of three previous books, unspools Jones and Hill's delightfully elaborate scheme in nail-biting episodes that -

That advance like a narrative Rube Goldberg machine, gradually leading from Yozgad to freedom by way of secret codes, a hidden camera, buried clues, fake suicides and a lot of ingenious mumbo jumbo.

At moments, ''The Confidence Men'' has the high gloss of a story polished through years of telling and retelling.

Going all the way to the stratagems of Odysseus, certain war stories draw their fascination from the breathtaking cleverness occasionally sparked by the will to survive.

''The Confidence Men,'' by Margalit Fox's riveting account of two British officers who sprang themselves from an Ottoman prison camp during World War 1 using a Ouija board, sleight of hand, feigned madness and vast stores of creativity, is such a tale. Like the ''Odyssey,'' Fox's book is less about war than the winding path home.

Toward the end of 1915, in the midst of an ill-planned campaign to march on Baghdad, British troops were besieged by Ottoman forces at Ku-al-Amara, a small town on the Tigris. After five months of relentless shelling, dwindling rations and failed rescue operations, the British raised a white flag.

Thirty-three thousand Allied troops ultimately perished at Kut. Fox quotes one historian who suggests it was Britain's worst defeat since Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

Rather than the high altitude perspective of much military history, here we get a narrative hovering at eye level. We learn more about Mrs. Milligan, a stoic hen beloved of the British gunners in Kut, then about David Lloyd George, or the Ottoman sultan.

Fox's depiction of the infernal trench conditions of Mesopotamia rivals the more familiar horrors of the muddy Western Front. Near the end of the siege, with 15 to men starving to death each day, ''the gunners ate Mrs. Milligan and found her tough.''

More than 12,000 troops were taken prisoner following the surrender. Many of the officers were transported 2,000 miles across present day Iraq, Syria and Turkey to Yozgad, a prison camp on the high Anatolian Plateau. Among them was E.H. Jones, a Welsh philosopher's brilliant son, who had been serving as a magistrate in Burma at the outbreak of war.

On a lark, Jones made a Ouija board from polished iron and an inverted jar. The hardships of war and a wave of magical new technologies [the phonograph, radio, flight]  had renewed public interest in telepathy and paranormal.

Jones, who studied psychology at the university and possessed an astounding memory visual memory, discovered that he could bamboozle his fellow officers, even blindfolded under close scrutiny. He found a perfect accomplice in C.W. Hill, a pilot at the Royal Flying Corps who had been raised on a Queensland ranch in Australia.

He too had a knack for secret codes and a willingness to risk his life for freedom. He also happened to be an accomplished stage conjuror.

Jones and Hill gradually ensorcelled the camp's Turkish commandant, placing him and two underlings under obedience to a ghost named ''the spook''. Speaking through the two prisoners and their Ouija board, the Spook promised to lead the men to a hoard of buried Armenian gold. [the recent genocide had resulted in a lot of buried wealth].

Jones and Hill planned for the Spook to guide the treasure hunters to the Mediterranean coast, where they could make their escape and possibly even turn over their captors to Allied forces in Cyprus.

As it happened, things took a darker turn.

Indeed, Hill and Jones each wrote lively chronicles of the escape. To make the material her own, Fox inserts a fresh ''mystery,'' namely : ''How in the world was this preposterous plan actually able to succeed.?''

Without breaking stride, she answers that question with brisk detours into mind control, telepathy, mentalism and the like.

The World Students Society thanks review author Chris Jennings. He is the author of ''Paradise Now'' : The Story of American Utopianism.''


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