I’m reading July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin, having enjoyed his The Russian Origins of the First World War (see this post) and having read in R.J.W. Evans NYRB review that it was “almost impossible to put down” (and of course being prompted by the centenary aspect); I’m still on the Prologue, but I’ve already run into a linguistic conundrum. In describing the preparations of the Serbian conspirators, he writes “Chabrinovitch, with papers provided by Popovitch, was to cross the border en route for Zvornik, on the Bosnian side; from there another confidence man would drive him to Tuzla, a town connected by railway to Sarajevo.” On the next page we get “Finally, in Tuzla, the three terrorists, having been reunited, turned over their deadly cargo to another confidence man, Mishko Jovanovitch, who, like Chubrilovitch, was both an upstanding local citizen (he owned a bank and a movie theater) and a member of Narodna Odbrana.” Setting aside the fact that I’ve been hit with a Chabrinovitch, a Ciganovitch, and a Chubrilovitch within the space of a few pages, about which it would be churlish for an aficionado of Russian literature to complain (though why he uses those archaic spellings instead of the correct Čabrinović etc. is beyond me), I want to focus on the phrase “confidence man,” which puzzled me. At first I thought “Well, the ‘con man’ sense I’m familiar with must be peculiar to the US, and in the UK it must mean ‘a man in whom confidence is placed,’” but a trawl through dictionaries put the kibosh on that idea (the OED defines it as “a professional swindler of respectable appearance and address,” the Concise [12th ed., 2011] simply as “a confidence trickster”). Furthermore, googling turns up no instances I can find of the phrase used as McMeekin uses it. So is he simply in error about its meaning, or am I missing something?
Addendum. I should add that he spells place names (e.g., Šabac) correctly; it’s just personal names that get the Ruritania treatment. Also, he spells the name of Sarajevo’s river “Miljăcke” rather than the correct Miljacka (note that he adds an incorrect breve as well as changing a to e), so I’m starting to have concerns about accuracy in general.
Further addendum. My concerns have been heightened by his reference to “a token Bosnian Muslim with the wonderfully evocative name of Mehmedbashitch (‘Mehmed’ being a Turkic variant of Mohammad and ‘bashitch’ the Slavicization of the Turkish word for kickback, baksheesh).” Now, that’s just silly; Mehmedbašić (to give the name its proper spelling) has the Serbo-Croatian -ić ending added to a name formed from the elements Mehmed and (I presume) Turkish baş ‘head.’ Why do people feel the need to make up “colorful” details like that?
Yet another addendum. OK, this is getting bad. At the start of chapter 1, describing the “glorious summer of 1914,” he says: “On Sunday afternoon, 28 June, Zweig … was … sitting on a park bench in the spa town of Baden, reading a Tolstoy novel.” Naturally, I wondered: which Tolstoy novel? What a stupid detail to omit! If it was War and Peace, for instance, it would be pleasantly piquant. Fortunately, Google Books lets me preview The World of Yesterday (cited in the footnote), where I discovered what Zweig actually wrote: “I was sitting at some distance from the crowd in the park, reading a book—I still remember that it was Merejkovsky’s Tolstoy and Dostoievsky—and I read with interest and attention.” It would appear McMeekin was working from vague memories rather than actual notes. If he’s falling down so badly on stuff I can easily check, why should I trust him on the stuff I can’t? And (he asked, futilely, for the umpteenth time) don’t any reviewers ever bother to check up on such things?