Published by Berkley
Publication date: November 27th 2012
Genres: Crime, History, Non-fiction
I’m not usually a fan of true crime but if we’re talking about the theft of one of the most expensive pieces of jewelry in history, count me in. Molly Caldwell Crosby’s The Great Pearl Heist takes place in London in 1912, a time of great change in the world of crime. It was only in the late 1800s that New Scotland Yard had created a department of detectives, designed to solve crimes while working undercover and forensics and fingerprinting were new, relatively untested aspects of police work. On the criminal side, a new class was emerging. Rather than the stereotypical thug, gangs were being created that were organized and, much like detectives, had members who could move freely through all strata of society without attracting attention.
Into this perfect storm came the greatest jewel theft in British history, masterminded by a shrewd gentleman, and pursued by a thoughtful tactician at New Scotland Yard. Molly Crosby exhibits thorough knowledge of her subject but writes with enough élan to make it read like fiction. The necklace was a string of 61 matching pinkish-gold pearls valued at roughly $750,000 (or $18 million in today’s dollars). This was before pearls could be cultured and their value was greater than diamonds, as they were that much more difficult to procure. This string was worth twice as much as the Hope diamond and once its presence was known in London it became the sole focus of a fence and gang leader named Lewis Grizzard. A well-dressed gentleman, leading an outwardly upper middle-class life, Grizzard was actually the brains behind many of the largest jewelry thefts in Great Britain at the time. He had no need of the money but did it for the thrill, acting like a businessman in the way he accumulated his workers, laid his plans, and executed his crimes.
Grizzard’s nemesis is Alfred Ward, one of the Metropolitan Police’s best criminologists. In pursuit of criminals he even took classes in safecracking and other criminal arts. He was one of the first to ‘think like a criminal’ and his talents were highly regarded at New Scotland Yard. He puts the same amount of thought into capturing the criminals as Grizzard did in concocting the heist.
The Great Pearl Heist is wonderful recreational reading as Crosby combines the facts in a way that keeps them from reading like a police report. Her details on the key players on both sides and the institutions involved, as well as the realities of life in London in the early 1900s are engrossing. To say much more would be to give away the story so will leave it at: this is a well-paced look at one of the greatest jewelry thefts of its time.