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Mark Seal
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Viking Adult / Penguin Putnam
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-670-02274-8
Publication Date: 06-02-2011
324 pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 07-24-2011

Index:  Non-Fiction  Mystery  General Fiction

Realistic crime novels are meant to offer both believability and thrills. There's no reason why a non-fiction work cannot cover exactly the same terrain. Mark Seal's 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter' is thrilling, exciting, full of twists and turns, and every bit is true — with the exception of the many lies told by the main character, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. Seal's non-fiction work is a brisk, exciting book whose propulsive plot and page-turning story conceals a graceful, complex structure needed to tell a very bizarre tale. Compared to 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit,' most fictional mysteries seem tame and realistic.

Even the basic outlines of the overall story require some calibration. Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter started his life in the small German town of Bergen. There, he revealed a flair for impersonation. But more importantly, he employed a talent for setting himself up in advance to escape from one situation to the next. He made it to the United States, moved around the East coast, then moved across the country to the West coast, before once again heading east. Everywhere he went he either subtly shifted one identity to include a new background or took on an entirely new name. Eventually, he ended up in Boston, claiming to be Clark Rockefeller, related in some manner to the famously rich Rockefeller family. He married Sandra Boss, a wealthy powerhouse, and they had a daughter they named Reigh, but whom he called "Snooks," and loved very much. It was a love that would prove to be his undoing.

The overall arc of Clark's life (and he lived much of his life under this name) is complex enough as is, but Seal does a superb job hooking the reader into the story with a stinging chase scene and bits of the trial before going back to the source. Seal had an incredibly difficult task ahead of him as he wrote the book, because Clark was highly intelligent, if completely without morals. As investigator and eventually storyteller, Seal had to follow a remarkably twisted and complex mind through a variety of lives. Against the odds, he succeeds, and the book reads like a complicated crime thriller.

Seal creates a large cast of memorable characters, from Americans who pick up a German hitchhiker in Bergen to dowdy housewives in the not-so-ritzy part ("Sub-Marino") of the ritzy suburb of San Marino, California. Clark himself is many characters, and yet, Seal manages to get at the troubled man underneath. But the hardest task confronting Seal is to do what Clark himself does; convince the reader that otherwise intelligent upstanding citizens could fall for Clark's lines. We believe in all these people; yes, they are real, but the situations are incredibly and increasingly surreal. Seal shows us how well-meaning citizens are easily and not-so-easily duped.

'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit' is a stunning page-turner because Seal manages another difficult feat, that of untangling Clark's story and life, and turning an almost incomprehensible timeline into a manageable plot. Sure, the man had to live his life in one place, one day at a time, but Clark's brilliance at creating new faces and lives is matched by Seal's at deciphering them. The research and reporting must have been very difficult, but readers don't have to see that. We're furiously turning the pages to see what happens next.

What happens, time and time again, is almost beyond belief. Much of this book would indeed be unbelievable if told as fiction by a novelist. Seal has a much tougher job. He has to bring the reader into the mind of "Clark Rockefeller," which is a disturbing and difficult experience. That he does so with the economy and grace found in 'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit' makes this book a serious competitor with any fictional thriller. The fact that it is true is a plus and, to a degree, a minus, in that readers will be forced to wonder who they don't know.

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