The dust jacket for The Professor and the Parson is adorned with compelling praise: “utterly mad and wholly delightful,” “lively,” “a roller coaster ride,” “delicious,” “weirdly compelling.” This book is, in fact, none of these things. The only quote I can kind of get on board with is from British magazine Emerald Street, which calls it “astonishing,” as I find it astonishing that people could have enjoyed this book. Reading this was such a slog, the title of this review reflects what I heard in my head the whole time I was reading it.
The Professor and the Parson is about a man named Robert Peters (sometimes known as Robert Parkins) who spent the better part of 60 years faking academic degrees and religious honors, wheedling his way into prestigious positions on several continents, only to be found out, fired, and forced to move on. Along the way he entered seven marriages, three of which were bigamous, performed invalid religious ceremonies (he was a defrocked minister), and was deported from several countries. I think the feeling we are supposed to be left with is, “How did this man get away with this so many times?” but all I could think was, “Why should I fucking care about any of this?”
Author Adam Sisman approaches this topic with a tiny hint of a wink and a smile, as if Peters/Parkins were a charming, harmless conman. And to be sure, he must have had charm, since he convinced so many women to marry him, but none of this comes across in the writing. His antics might vaguely recall a kind of Frank Abignale of Catch Me If You Can fame, but instead of a vulnerable scamp, Peters is a jerk and a bully. As Sisman explains, “He would never retract or apologize; he appeared to have no shame, and therefore no conscience. An egotist, he was indifferent to the thoughts and feelings of those whom his actions might have damaged; other people, it seemed, existed solely to serve his purpose.” Peters was Donald Trump without the money.
The other character in this tale, the “professor” refers to Hugh Trevor-Roper, to whom Peters appealed for help when he felt the Bishop of Oxford was “persecuting” him (in fact, the Bishop was becoming wise to Peters’ chicanery). Upon realizing that Peters was a fake, Trevor-Roper became fascinated by his story and continued to track his “career.” I don’t know much about Trevor-Roper, and the book doesn’t give me any insight into his personality, but his pursuit of Peters came across less about keeping him in check and more about voyeurism, giving his part in this a Ken Starr investigating the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal ickiness. Interestingly, Trevor-Roper was later at the center of the Hitler diaries hoax, and for three-and-a-half short pages, this book became really interesting. Sadly, that was a short detour before we had to go back to the drudgery of the main topic.
The real shame of this book is that it might be a compelling story in different hands. I couldn’t help but think what an author like Erik Larson, who routinely turns historical events into thrilling page-turners, could do with it. Maybe it wouldn’t be a 5-star book, but I’d expect a solid 3-star effort. Sisman, on the other hand, records events ad nauseam without adding any insight, until the final page, where he lists the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder, and says Peters was a textbook case. No kidding–two hundred and two pages to finally state what is pretty apparent from the first chapter.