Sometimes a sentence makes you fall in love with a book.

“The Queen” is Josh Levin’s nonfiction portrait of grifter Linda Taylor, a little remembered Chicagoan who loomed large in 1970s and ’80s discussions of welfare fraud. Early in the book Levin gives us this gem about Taylor’s Cadillac: “That car was impossible to miss, parked in the middle of the first sentence of the first article that ever mentioned her name.”

The verve and humor of Levin’s writing mirrors the brazenness of the crimes Taylor committed under various false identities. Here’s another Levin winner from nine pages later: “To stay safe, Linda had to get as far away from Illinois as possible. In a new place, in front of a new audience, she could become a new set of people.”

For its first half, “The Queen” is almost a picaresque. You can feel Levin’s respect for Taylor’s daring as she fakes mental illness on the witness stand, forces her daughter to pretend to be deaf, steals identities (including that same daughter’s), defrauds welfare organizations under multiple names and at multiple addresses, claims to be an heiress, dodges reporters and cops, identifies herself at various times as white or Hawaiian or Latino and becomes Ronald Reagan’s favorite talking point in his first run for the U.S. presidency.

Taylor is like a one-person, low-rent “Ocean’s 11,” and you can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity with which she kept it up for decades. Neither can Levin, who ends virtually every chapter with a cliffhanger, tantalizing us with clues to Taylor’s next big scam.

But there’s a bigger, and grimmer, story here, and Levin gives it its due. In the second half of the book, the writer tries to figure out who Taylor was, whether any of the names she used were real (spoiler alert: They weren’t) and where she came from. He also reckons with the wreckage of Taylor’s crimes, including several children she mistreated (and may have stolen), as well as at least one person she almost certainly murdered.

The further Levin dives into her sordid story, the less Taylor comes off like a ’70s Robin Hood who stole from the poor and gave to herself. She did horrible things, most of which faded away once she was branded “the welfare queen.” Levin gets at the racism behind the way journalists delighted in lampooning Taylor, instead of identifying the cracks in government agencies so broken that they couldn’t help her or address the systemic flaws she exploited.

We learn that Taylor was part of a cycle of abuse, raised by a mother who, on more than one occasion, denied that she even existed. If it had been possible to pin Taylor down in her lifetime, she would have been a statistic: of poverty, of crime, of disease. But Levin makes sure that her story is heard and that we know its tragedy, which is that Linda Taylor was doomed from the moment she was born.

 

The Queen
By: Josh Levin.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 417 pages, $29.