Get out of prison with a Ouija board and some nifty tips
Set aside for the remainder of the war, the prisoners of Yozgad devoted their energy to killing time. Much of the fun of “The Confidence Men” comes from the mind-boggling pluck of these young men of the empire. Shell and starve them within inches of their lives, force the survivors through Asia Minor and before they can sing “Rule, Britannia!” they organized a debating society and started dress rehearsals for a light comic book opera (title: “The Beautiful Young Girl from Yozgad”). Of course, somewhere outside the frame of Fox’s story, there are loads of enlisted men from both armies being held in much less humane conditions. Unlike the guys from Yozgad, they probably weren’t getting local greyhounds for the POW Hunting Club.
On a lark, Jones made a Ouija board from polished iron and an inverted pot. The trials of war and a wave of new magical technologies (phonograph, radio, flight) had renewed public interest in telepathy and the paranormal. It was a “liminal era,” Fox writes, “at the crossroads of the scientific and the spiritual.” Jones, who studied psychology in college and possessed an amazing visual memory, found he could bamboozle his fellow officers, even blindfolded under scrutiny. He found a perfect accomplice in CW Hill, a Royal Flying Corps pilot who had grown up on a Queensland ranch. Hill had been captured after his biplane was shot down in Egypt. Like Jones, he had a knack for secret codes and a willingness to risk his life for freedom. He also proved to be an accomplished conjurer.
Jones and Hill gradually bewitched the camp’s tough Turkish commander, placing him and two underlings under the trembling obedience of a powerful ghost named “The Dread.” Speaking through the two prisoners and their Ouija board, the Spook promised to lead the men to a buried Armenian golden treasure. (The recent genocide had resulted in much buried wealth.) Jones and Hill planned for the Spook to guide the treasure hunters to the Mediterranean coast, where they could escape and possibly even hand over their captors to Allied forces in Cyprus. In this case, things took a darker turn.
Fox, a former New York Times senior obituary editor and author of three previous books, unwinds Jones and Hill’s delightfully elaborate scheme in biting episodes that advance like a story machine of Rube Goldberg, gradually leading from Yozgad to freedom through secret codes, a hidden camera, buried clues, fake suicides and a lot of ingenious mumbo jumbo. At times, “The Confidence Men” has the shine of a story polished by years of storytelling and retelling. Indeed, Hill and Jones each wrote animated chronicles of the escape. To appropriate the material, Fox inserts a new “mystery” into the drama, namely: “How the hell did this absurd plan succeed?” Without slowing down, she answers this question with quick detours to mind control, telepathy, mentalism, etc.