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 Books, $25.95
Molly Caldwell Crosby will talk about "The Great Pearl Heist" at The Booksellers at Laurelwood at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
A good heist story needs three things: a clever and daring thief, a determined cop, and a supremely valuable object. It doesn't hurt if the story is set in some exotic locale, complete with a menacing underworld and glittering socialite balls.
It's unusual for an author to pull all of these elements together not in a crime novel, but in a carefully researched work of historical nonfiction. Yet Memphis-based journalist Molly Caldwell Crosby, author of two science-based works of historical nonfiction, "The American Plague" and "Asleep," does exactly that in "The Great Pearl Heist: London's Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard's Hunt for the World's Most valuable Necklace."
The thief: Joseph Grizzard, the "greatest receiver, fence, and putter-up of his time," a criminal mastermind who seldom dirtied his own hands. Instead, he ran a smooth conspiracy from his fashionable home, one that caused Scotland Yard detectives to call him "the real-life Moriarty," after Arthur Conan Doyle's famous villain.
The cop: Alfred Ward, chief inspector of Scotland Yard, leader of a team of detectives who employed disguises, undercover operations and carefully orchestrated stings — a new kind of police work for a new century — in their efforts to pursue the "uncatchable" Grizzard. Like his nemesis, Ward was self-educated: he was born in a London slum in the 1860s and worked his way into a more "respectable" life.
The prize: a strand of 61 flawless pearls, graduated in size, slightly pink in color, insured by Lloyds of London for £135,000, or about $700,000 U.S. at the exchange rate of the period. Crosby calculates the necklace's value in purchasing power as about $18 million in today's currency; as a percentage of GDP, about $121 million. By any measure, it was the single most valuable piece of jewelry that had ever been stolen, worth even more than the Hope Diamond that would be famously snatched decades later by Murph the Surf.
The setting: London, 1913. From the Dickensian horrors of the East End through the crowded jewel market at Tenterhooks to the dusty halls of the Old Bailey, Crosby paints a city "scudding ahead of a world war on the horizon." Straddling the Victorian and the modern, its filthy streets bustled with motorcars and donkey carts; its lurid headlines proclaimed news of murder, theft, determined suffragettes, and a distant Balkan war.
A science writer who worked for Health, Newsweek and National Geographic magazines, Crosby brings a clinical eye to her subject, creating a narrative that manages to remain both exciting and informative. While there is plenty of nefarious action in this book, there is also careful detail.
Grizzard's previous targets included diamond necklaces and even the massive Ascot gold trophy, stolen from under the noses of royal guards on Derby Day. One thing his heists shared was a cultivated information network. Members of Grizzard's gang befriended and bribed postmen, guards, maids, menservants, drivers, and anyone else who could be convinced by a few pounds — or pints — into sharing information.
Such was the case with the fabulous pearl necklace acquired by a London dealer named Max Mayer and shipped to Paris to be shown to a wealthy client.
As Crosby provides the cunning details of the theft Grizzard arranges, a plan both complicated and simple, the reader can almost hear Scott Joplin ragtime playing in the background.
The second half of the book is an elaborate dance between the well-matched thief and detective. As with all complex enterprises, chance and coincidence play as important a role as cunning, which leads to a climactic trial in the Old Bailey, prosecuted by one of England's "greatest legal minds," Sir Richard Muir. In a story that is ultimately satisfying, readers are left not with right and wrong, with hero and villain, but with two unforgettable heroes, one a detective, the other a thief.
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