Richard Rayner had a peripatetic childhood, and it seemed he found some sense of place when he attended Cambridge University. The study of philosophy combined with an obsession with books, however, served as the catalyst for a bizarre life of crime. Mounting debts propelled the author into a series of adventures, as he plundered bookstores for elusive first editions, forged checks, and acted as an accomplice in a Keystone Kops-like attempted bank robbery. In a memoir that's "compelling, edgy, painfully alive" (Times Literary Supplement), like "stripped-down Dostoevsky" (Time), this is the personal story, both tragic and comic, of an absence of identity and a long checkered past of crimes and misdemeanors.
In calm, precise retrospect, the pushing-midlife Rayner (Los Angeles Without a Map) limns a chilling growing-up story in which ``life was a question of surviving... of not getting caught.'' His father, a crook who disappeared when the author was a youth, shadows his life and this narrative. So when Richard, at Cambridge, was faced with a debt, he graduated from pinching books to forging checks, putting on his blue suit to approach London bankers. He dabbled in burglary and was lightly fined when caught shoplifting once. More clinical than apologetic in his flashbacks, Rayner fleshes out his horrors, adding a sometimes vicious mother to his psychohistory. He proceeded as an apprentice journalist and failed novelist in London; he consorted--even in crime--with a high-born woman married to a junkie. It was good fortune in life, not any moral epiphany, that eased him out of crime. Now in L.A. and a new relationship, he has liberated his family secrets and personal demons: ``I'm having to wring the thief out of me drop by drop.'' First serial to Granta; author tour.