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Book previews: Delete This At Your Peril | Bob Servant: Hero of Dundee

Delete This At Your Peril | Bob Servant: Hero of Dundee By Neil Forsyth Birlinn, £6.99/£7.99

My INTEREST in fraudsters originates from a 2005 article in The Scotsman - Jet-set Conman Checks Into Prison - and surely culminated earlier this month when I watched Brian Cox, one of the pre-eminent Scottish actors of his generation, hunched on all fours pretending to be a dog.

I could speak at indeterminable length, and with inexhaustible pride, about watching Brian Cox pretending to be a dog so it's probably for the best that I start with that article back in April 2005

Fraudsters are a curious type of sociopath because of their inherent need for human contact. People are their business.

The jet-set conman was a young Glaswegian crook, Elliot Castro, who had developed a form of credit-card fraud built around old-school confidence trickery. Starting at the age of 16 Castro (who I would learn had bounced through eight schools, gained no qualifications and had serious behavioural issues) had defrauded the world's most famous credit-card companies for a seven-figure sum.

There was nothing in the article on his motivations for stealing the money but plenty on how he spent it - in an international romp of renowned hotels, first-class travel and frantic profligacy. It had taken three years, but a veteran detective from Heathrow police station had tracked Castro down to the fitting location of Edinburgh's Glasshouse hotel, around 500 metres from my flat.

As a writer who then punted stories to the stoically amoral men's magazine market, I was quick to pounce. Our eventual correspondence and meetings developed in Other People's Money, which we published in 2008.

Prison saved Castro, the forced extraction from normal life allowed him to find a way to live it, and his reformation is steady and determined. There are still chinks. His excuses for arriving late are a joy, with their dramatic flourishes and absurdist twists.

Shortly after the publication of Other People's Money I received a spam e-mail entitled Delete This At Your Peril. With little thought I replied and began six months conversing with spammers around the world. In my attempts to drive at least one of these clumsy, would-be fraudsters into insanity I created a character called Bob Servant, a 62-year-old former window cleaner and "cheeseburger van magnate" from my native Dundee. The emails grew into the book Delete This At Your Peril - The Bob Servant Emails which was soon forgotten as I moved smoothly into a third project steeped in fraud.

I went with friends to a performance by the medium Derek Acorah at Edinburgh's Playhouse. If you're not aware of Acorah - star of TV's Most Haunted - he's a dyed blonde, middle-aged Liverpudlian with a diamond earring and a spiritual companion called Sam.

While Acorah went through his act - attempting to contact audience members' deceased relatives and getting mixed assistance from the unreliable Sam - I was transfixed. I was watching Acorah but really I was watching Elliot Castro: the same moves, feints, ways of extracting information from people without them being aware of it.

There were the same calculated risks and the whole performance was underpinned with the same learned understanding of the human mind - the dependable hopes and fears and the fact that everyone thinks, at some level, natural laws could possibly be excused in just their case. Putting all these shaped thoughts aside, what I pondered more than anything was how does someone end up doing that?

My answer was the novel Let Them Come Through and the antihero Nick Santini, a TV medium in hock to various demons and trawling his life for redemption. To create Santini I immersed myself into the ludicrous world of mediums - from Soho palm readers to the slickly edited TV recordings, from thousand-seat theatres to phoneline charlatans.

After the novel came out I moved to New York, where Bob Servant began his unlikely return. Delete This At Your Peril had received warm reviews but was hindered by various calamities in the publishing process. Word of mouth had given it an unlikely afterlife; elevated when Irvine Welsh selected it as his choice for Esquire magazine's poll of the Funniest Books Ever.

It was nice to hear that Irvine agreed with me (that's a joke) and soon after BBC Scotland asked if I was interested in developing the Bob Servant character. That has led to the republishing in expanded form of Delete This At Your Peril along with the publication of a sequel, Bob Servant's autobiography Bob Servant - Hero Of Dundee. More importantly, it led to Brian Cox pretending to be a dog.

In my first conversation with the BBC they asked who my choice would be to play Bob. I said Brian Cox, clearly in hope rather than expectation. It was an unlikely ambition until I went to watch Dundee United play Rangers in New York earlier this year and met a fellow United fan originally from Arbroath. In conversation it emerged he was a good friend of Brian, who also lives in New York, and as a result the book was passed on.

The result was that a few weeks ago Brian arrived one morning at BBC Scotland, tired from a highly charged Question Time encounter with Dr David Starkey the night before, to inhabit the character of Bob Servant. By the last day of recording there was delirium in the air and when Bob was scripted to impersonate a dog, Brian, with 50 years of theatrical and feature film achievement behind him, sunk grandly to the studio floor before unleashing an impressive range of barks.

Earlier I said that seeing Brian Cox in such a manner would be a fitting culmination to my fraudster fixation. That was somewhat disingenuous. I'm halfway through a novel to be released by Random House in 2012. The story is set in Ibiza in 1989, the two main characters live under assumed identities, their relationship with the world is framed by lies and so on and so on …

l The Bob Servant Emails is on Radio Scotland, Fridays at 1.45pm from 29 October.

 
 
 

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