Monday, July 15, 2013

"The Great Pearl Heist" by Molly Caldwell Crosby (2012)

100 years ago today a string of the world’s most valuable pearls, arranged in a necklace, left Paris for an overnight journey to London. It was sent by Solomans, one of the world’s leading jewelers of the day, to a jeweler named Max Meyer. The pearls never arrived at their destination.

The story of the heist; and the men who pulled it off; is set like a gemstone by the author in a narrative that depicts the final years of the Victorian Era just as the Edwardian Era dawns. Europe was in an upheaval which would lead to world war, and the old aristocracy was beginning to crumble. In many ways, it was the beginning of the end for the British Empire.

Joseph Grizzard, also known as “Cammi” in the criminal underworld, was the mastermind of the whole affair. From humble beginnings in the East End of London, he rose to be a respected gentleman. He had but one flaw; he was a thief of the first order. He had been involved in some of the most notorious crimes of the era; never violent crimes; this man was no Jack the Ripper. He was a jewel thief, and now he had his sights set on the biggest prize of his lifetime.

With a very skilled hand, Ms. Crosby guides the reader through the London known to many as a labyrinth of criminal characters, while at the same time drawing upon the history of crime in the city. So much of this book will remind the reader of “Oliver Twist”, as it takes place in the same crowded quarter of the city as that story did. Indeed, Dickens used to walk these streets in search of inspiration for his books. All of this only serves to make the book more enjoyable, as it lends a familiarity to the locations, drawing the reader further in.

The book is not only the story of this one particular crime, but also a history of crime detection techniques and their rise in use during the early years of the last century. From fingerprints to profiling, this was the era in which it all began. New York already had its Rogues Gallery of mug shots, and Scotland Yard had fingerprints. They also had a cadre of undercover policemen, dressed as tramps, thieves, even prostitutes, in an attempt to penetrate the criminal underworld of the day.

In addition, the author takes the time to develop the histories of each of the principal characters, giving them a depth which makes them more “real” to the reader. In turn, that knowledge is translated into admiration, or pity, for the people involved in the story itself. It may sound easy to do; but it’s not.

As to the case itself; Joseph Grizzard was caught; albeit by other thieves looking to cash in on the reward; but the double crosses and deceits come quickly in this book, so you need to pay attention. To that end, Ms. Crosby has prefaced the book with a wonderfully arranged list of principal characters, as well as a short introduction of the necklace itself.

Also included, in the very first chapter, is a breathtaking description of just how pearls were harvested by natives who would attach themselves to heavy stones and then plunge 100 feet below the surface, holding their breath while they gathered as many of the oyster shells as they could hold, before cutting themselves loose for the sudden ascent to the surface. Some made it, others did not. And, with only 1 of about every 200 shells likely to yield a pearl, they were just as rare; and more perfect than diamonds. Even the best diamonds need to be cut. Pearls are perfect as is.

Grizzard was eventually charged and convicted of the heist; mostly due to the work of Chief Inspector Alfred Ward of Scotland Yard, with a bit of help from some seedy characters looking for the reward. And after he was released from prison in 1920, he went on to do one more heist, this time using a front man with whom he provided the cash necessary to gain the confidence of a local jeweler. Then, after several cash purchases,  when that confidence was secure, he had his front man purchase a necklace worth more than he had already spent in cash, paying for that final purchase with a bogus check.

Sick and weak from diabetes, Grizzard was convicted of this last crime and  allowed to serve his sentence at home, dying there from the effects of diabetes. He passed away on September 11, 1923, the exact day; as the author points out; when insulin first became available to fight the disease that killed him.

Only one pearl; the largest; was ever recovered from the Great Pearl Heist. It was the centerpiece which hung at the bottom of the necklace. It had originally belonged to a Royal family from Portugal before making it's way to Max Mayer's necklace.

If you love true crime stories, seedy characters right out of Charles Dickens, along with foggy London streets and overnight train trips to Paris; this book is everything you could hope for.  

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