In 1913, in the heart of London’s jewel district, Hatton Garden, an extraordinary pearl necklace was stolen. The mastermind behind this plot was one Joseph Grizzard, a rakish, charismatic ringleader who would not be out of place in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.
Grizzard was no thug—he avoided violence and commanded no legions of brawlers—but he was a criminal mastermind all the same, a man preoccupied with stealing other people’s property and selling it at a handsome profit. A lifetime of this type of work had led him from the rough-and-tumble streets of London’s East End to a comfortable, even lavish lifestyle. His authority held sway over numerous loyal lieutenants and enough devoted followers that he himself could avoid doing the dirty work. The theft of the pearl necklace would prove to be his most difficult heist yet, one requiring months of planning and careful execution, and was the crowning achievement in a lifetime of crime.
At the other end of the spectrum sat Detective Alfred Ward, Scotland Yard’s brightest young investigator. At this point in history, detection was still a very young discipline—so young in fact that much of the general public disapproved of it, finding it sneaky and underhanded for detectives to do such things as employ undercover operatives or pay money to informants. Ward was one of the police force’s best hopes for solving difficult mysteries, and the theft of the pearls, which took place early one July morning, was one of the most difficult yet.
The Great Pearl Heist is a fascinating, delightful and compulsively readable book, a look into a little-known and long-forgotten corner of history in which criminals and police were struggling to keep up with one another’s advances, at a time when sportsmanship and gentlemanly behavior were, just barely, still in evidence on both sides. Such new technologies as fingerprinting were just getting started, yet it was still a time when jewels valued at tens of thousands of pounds (hundreds of thousands of today’s dollars) would routinely be sent through international mail.
With World War I looming barely a year away, this sense of innocense would not long remain in the world: Europe was about to grow up in a hurry. This last-gasp blend of naiveté and sophistication, though, is one of the elements that renders this book so compelling.
Another one is the ease with which author Molly Caldwell Crosby (The American Plague, Asleep) renders the portraits of the primary characters involved. In addition to the intimidating but gentlemanly Grizzard and the stolid, unassuming Ward, we have Grizzard’s co-conspirators, James Lockett (“If Grizzard held the title ‘King of Fences,’ James Lockett was the undisputed ‘Prince of Thieves’”) and crooked diamond broker Simon Silverman (“Silverman was a tediously polite and apologetic person, an accomodating people-pleaser”). The rather disagreeable Lesir Gutworth acts as something of a free agent—‘he was the sort of man always trying to compensate for his minor appearance with a big presence”—while a pair of European jewellers named Brandstatter and Quadretstein decide to spring a trap for the criminals before going to the police. They will come to second-guess their decision later on.
The account of the theft and the subsequent police investigation is divided into three sections, “The Heist”, “The Sting”, and “Justice”, which account respectively for the theft, the investigation, and the trial. Inevitably, the first two sections are the most interesting, and few readers will be able to resist the allure of watching the heist in action. The whole account reads as minutely as a police procedural, with specific details noted and conversations recorded in detail. How much of this is based on the testimony of those involved, and how much is authorial invention, I can’t say; but certainly, the 24 pages of notes and references at the back suggests that Crosby’s “creative” input was kept to a minimm throughout.
Notwithstanding that, Crosby’s writing reads smoothly and goes down like water. She has a knack for providing just enough information to set the scene without bogging down the reader in superfluity: “Over time, Hatton Garden sank into decline as residences gave way to small businesses, the neighborhood’s proximity to urban slums contributing to the morass of dubious businesses.” Later, in describing the prosecutor Muir, we are told that he “had a reputation for being methodical, quiet, and persistent… his liquid-mercurry style of arguing was cool and pervasive, making the fiery rhetoric of his opponents seem all the more overwrought.”
Without indulging in spoilers, I will say that the case resolves itself in a fairly satisfying way. However, in a brief postscript, Crosby outlines the fates of the principal characters during the subsequent war years. Perhaps inevitably, these outcomes are neither so tidy nor so poetically just as readers might wish.
The Great Pearl Heist is a solid read for anyone with an interest in either history or crime—isn’t that most of us? Crosby’s smoothly-flowing account will keep readers turning the pages, just as the case kept contemporary readers glued to their newspaper accounts in the days before CSI and The Wire.