Who The Hell Is Hamish?: The trail of devastation left by a professional fraudster

The Australian

Hamish Maclaren — or Hamish Watson or Hamish Maxwell or Max Tavita, depending on who you ask — is a bad, bad man. A professional Catch Me If You Can-style confidence trickster, Hamish scammed millions upon millions from countless victims over a career that lasted at least 30 years.

The longevity of his criminal career is matched only by its international reach, with Hamish’s victims cropping up on three continents. The story behind Who The Hell Is Hamish? is one hell of a tale, and for 9 episodes it is driven almost entirely by personal stories from the mouths of the many victims this protagonist left in his considerable wake.

Some adept and careful interviewing by Greg Bearup helps tease out a complex narrative from the avalanche of Hamish-directed fury and disdain. Who The Hell Is Hamish? could so easily have been an arduous litany of identical-sounding testimonials and anecdotes — like so many podcasts are — but Bearup’s skillful hand reveals a second layer.

That Hamish is a fraud goes without saying, but we also learn how deeply damaged is he as human being, his “Walter Mitty” revelations taken to extremes that are frankly unnecessary for financial fraud. There are vivid, and sometimes ludicrous, deceptions that must have almost betrayed him on occasions.

Hamish fabricates a violent end for his parents — sometimes by air and sometimes by sea. He invents, and then kills off, an identical twin brother he names Phil (his father’s moniker). He rides right up to the edge, testing the belief of the Hamish faithful as a house full of people wait for the imminent arrival of his friend, Tom “Tommy” Cruise.

We don’t need a psychologist to learn that he’s a sociopath.

Hamish’s real-life relationships are, if anything, even more complicated. We discover that he was an amiable teenager, a poor liar while working as a young futures trader (where he picked up the financial lingo he’d find useful), a vain but sexless lover, a seducer of the vulnerable and, perhaps most obviously, utterly ruthless in his treatment of even those with whom he’d had very close personal relationships.

Though we’re frequently told Hamish had a brilliant intellect and winning charm, he doesn’t come off as anything close to the DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale. He seems cold, calculating, soulless. Clearly, how a conman is conveyed in the retelling is contingent on the perspective of the audience, and we’re never encouraged to join Team Hamish. We are never compelled to will him on.

If anything is missing from Who The Hell Is Hamish?, it is an explanation. Exactly how did he come to be this way? What happened between school and the futures floor that created a monster? We do learn about family members in passing — a sister here, a brother-in-law there — but they never give their side. It’s a shame, because it means we never find our way to an incident or an experience that explains the Hamish phenomenon.

An expert describes Hamish’s style of psychopathy as partly attributable to nature and partly to nurture, but that’s as much as we get.

However, what this podcast does throw into high relief is the ongoing ineptitude of investigating police authorities. That Hamish was rumbled time and time again, and still able move on to embrace new aliases, try new ruses, and persecute new victims is an indictment. In many cases lifetime savings were drained, vital resources stolen, and marriages smashed to pieces, and each one — right up until the end — represents a missed opportunity to prevent further carnage.

A slightly clunky chronology can sometimes make it difficult to follow Hamish’s path closely and plot his movements as goes through each metamorphosis. Though doubtless unintentional, there is a something rather suitable about it. And the can’t-pin-him-down-ness of this podcast is part of its huge appeal.

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