Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History
US: Feb 2010
There is something potentially subversive about releasing a book about a diamond heist on Valentine’s Day, which is when Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, by Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell, hit the shelves. Thinking about the lengths to which people will go to protect and to steal these rocks makes you wonder what those silhouettes and strings quartets are hiding in all of those commercials. Couple the release date with the fact that one of the co-authors wrote the book on which the movie Blood Diamond was based, and Flawless could be one of those works that casts in a new light a tradition that we hold dear.
So I was a little disappointed when I realized that the book’s publication date was designed to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the robbery, and I was doubly disappointed when I learned that not even the crooks themselves chose Valentine’s Day for its symbolic value. Instead, the date was chosen for a variety of reasons, including a tennis tournament and a high-profile wedding.
There are a couple of pages on how the diamond industry funds terrorism, a couple more on all of those black-market diamonds that went unreported to the insurance company, and a fascinating discussion about the degree to which DeBeers controlled diamond prices at the turn of the 20th century, but don’t let any of that fool you. This is a cops-n-robbers book, and ultimately the publication date ends up being much like the book itself: It grabs your attention, but it really doesn’t mean anything.
Flawless tells the story of a group of diamond thieves who are known as the “School of Turin”, a name derived from the region of Italy that connects them. The term “school” here is telling, as these are no amateurs. This is a carefully selected and complementary crew that has a professional understanding of such things as security cameras and safes. Even their front companies are connected to the diamond industry (one of the key players is an aspiring jeweler), and they are nothing if not patient: This particular heist takes years to plan, two of which are spent in residence casing the joint.
The joint in question is the Diamond Center, in the heart of the Diamond District in Antwerp, Belgium. The center holds hundreds of millions of dollars worth of diamonds, gold, jewels, and cash in its 189 safe deposit boxes, nearly half a billion dollars of which was stolen by the School. Selby and Campbell take great pains early in the book to demonstrate just how well the Center was fortified. Guards, garage doors, keys, cameras, motion sensors, heat sensors, and light detectors were all in play, to say nothing of the multitude of combinations, to both the vault and to each individual safe deposit box.
In addition, as the authors describe it, the Diamond District itself feels like a militarized zone. Barriers restrict the flow of traffic, and a police station stands only a block away from the Center. This insulation creates a strange dynamic: the diamond purveyors traffic in millions and millions of dollars of merchandise, but they feel safe enough to do so by lugging it around in their pockets.
Transactions among merchants are collegial affairs, and as such they make for some of the finest writing in the book. For example, this description of diamonds being presented for inspection: “The loose diamonds were laid out on small white velvet pads or in little tissue-paper packages known as diamond papers unfolded into the shape of a paper box. They were handed around casually like someone passing the salt; when they were poured into metal measuring cups at the electronic scale on each table, they sounded like marbles being poured into a skillet.”
Selby and Campbell smartly structure the book by frontloading for the reader the various challenges that must be overcome in order for the robbery to succeed. Indeed, part of the fun is thinking along with them and trying to figure out how they are going to do it. I felt like an audience member trying to puzzle out how a magic trick is performed, and I was delighted when the solution was something as simple as, say, some hairspray applied in the right place at the right time. After this quick start, however, Flawless hits a bit of a lull.
In some ways, the authors fall victim to their own insight. When Selby and Campbell compare a real heist with those that are depicted in the movies, they observe that “[t]he slow pace and tedium of planning a heist is something most Hollywood movies rarely depict. Heist films never show the frustration of needing to wait a month or more to get a critical piece of information from the inside man… They don’t show the gnawing fear that something is being overlooked… And they don’t show the interminable hours staring at blueprints and watching videotapes over and over and drawing a blank”.
The same criticism cannot be leveled here. Selby and Campbell capture the tedium, sometimes too well. They painstakingly chronicle every problem and possible solution. In fairness, I can be an impatient reader, but when I already know they crack the safe, I don’t need to know each and every way they didn’t do it.
Part of the problem, too, is that they take as their main character a man named Leonardo Notarbartolo (the would-be jeweler mentioned earlier). Notarbartolo is the obvious choice, as he is the one who both invests and loses the most in the deal (now is probably a good time to mention that, while the burglary itself is flawless, the getaway is not). The catch-22 is that the reason that makes Notarbartolo the ideal choice to infiltrate the Diamond Center doubles as the reason why he should not be the focus of a book: He is a plain, unassuming man, almost to the point of being anonymous. He spices up his character a little at the end when his motives for wanting to tell his story are challenged, but in general the authors would do well to de-emphasize a character whose entry in the index includes a section that says “as forgettable”.
Selby and Campbell don’t help their cause by including a section on other legendary heists, heists that were often pulled off by characters that are more colorful than their own. During one such welcome digression, I read about a man who damaged a car when he jumped out the window in an effort to evade police custody. Legend has it that he later sent the owner of the car the equivalent of $600 to cover the expenses. I couldn’t help but think, “I bet that would be an interesting book”.
Things pick up though when the police investigation begins, and all that wonder aimed at the genius of the School of Turin rolls over into an equal amount of wonder at their stupidity. (What’s that old line about never returning to the scene of the crime?) When the good guys showed up I was reminded that a game of cat-and-mouse is no fun when the mouse is allowed to run free. The cat provides some much needed tension, which is exactly what happens here. The evidence against the thieves, the investigation, even the wrangling in court—these elements of the story sweep the reader away for the last third of the book, so much so that the earlier tedium is forgiven.
The end of the book also introduces a few new characters into the mix, a husband, wife, and two daughters who seem to be (mostly) innocent but who nonetheless get caught in the School of Turin’s web. The inclusion of this family inspired something close to real emotion in me, which is a good trick for a book that otherwise relies on the cleverness of its players.
In the end, so what if this isn’t the exposé that I had anticipated from the start. Once it gets revved up, Flawless delivers the ride you want from a story about a caper. The protestations of the authors aside, this is the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster, which means ultimately only one question matters: I wonder who’s going to direct?