THE GREAT PEARL HEIST: London's Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard's Hunt for the World's Most Valuable Necklace, by Molly Caldwell Crosby. Berkley, 288 pp., $25.95.
Some criminals use brute force to accomplish their goals; others use the more peaceful means of guile, deception and trickery. The underworld characters in Molly Caldwell Crosby's "The Great Pearl Heist" fall into the latter category. The 1913 heist of the title involved no gunplay or violence, just a meticulous plan that centered on a London postal route and a small package. Its contents: a strand of 61 stunning pearls, valued at a staggering $18 million in today's money, and worth more than the Hope Diamond.
In her well-researched account, Crosby recounts the theft, the gang of thieves behind it and Scotland Yard's hunt for the culprits. Her story is rich in the lore of London's famed underworld; this is a tale of fences, putter-ups and receivers (she provides a handy glossary for such street vernacular) who trafficked in stolen jewels and other valuables. She takes us deep into the worlds of criminals and the lawmen who pursued them.
The mastermind of the heist was Joseph Grizzard, who looked like anything but a hoodlum. Though he came out of the mean streets of London's East End, Grizzard resembled an Edwardian businessman. Tall, polished and debonair, he sported a blond mustache and favored diamond cuff links. It was the perfect cover for his real business -- that of the artful, well-executed theft. He was a great success, masterminding capers with a precise attention to every facet of a job.
It's a cliche to speak of honor among thieves, but Grizzard was, in fact, a deeply honorable man who commanded the respect of even the police. "Most of Grizzard's power and appeal in the criminal world was due to the fact that he was generous, he never used violence and he was fiercely loyal," Crosby observes. Such qualities stood Grizzard in good stead when he planned to make off with a pearl necklace owned by jeweler Max Mayer. Grizzard's devoted confederates swung into action, tracing Mayer's daily routine nearly to the minute. Grizzard's technique was to study, plot and plan, plan, plan. No detail was too small or too minor.
A bribe to a postman -- Mayer mailed the necklace to a prospective buyer for inspection -- eased the way. The theft became a sensation, and Grizzard and his gang were put to the test as he tried to unload the pearls. Scotland Yard's best man, Alfred Ward, led the charge, pursuing Grizzard with a squad of undercover operatives. "CSI" fans will enjoy Crosby's descriptions of the legwork involved: modern forensic procedures, the use of fingerprinting and the like, were just coming into their own.
A delicate game of cat and mouse ensued, and we follow Grizzard and company from teahouse to pub as they stealthily conduct business. A complicated sting operation, which requires close reading, tries to ensnare Grizzard, who's always one step before the law. I found myself rooting for this supremely cool and confident criminal wizard. Does London's "King of Fences" get away with it? You'll just have to read the book to find out.