Book review: The Great Victorian Jewel Thief

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The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet: The Great Victorian Jewel Thief

Duncan Hamilton (Century, £14.99, *£12.99)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on one occasion puts into the mouth of Sherlock Holmes the remark that ‘audacity and romance seem to have passed forever from the criminal world’. Holmes must have overlooked his real-life near-contemporary Harry the Valet, who was not only the greatest Victorian jewel thief, but also a rogue of outstanding audacity and ingenuity, motivated by an insatiable taste for high living and chorus girls.

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The most appealing aspect of this book is the racy account it gives of Harry’s most spectacular coups. His technique was to pass himself off as an immaculately dressed gentleman, frequenting the theatres and nightclubs of London’s West End, the grouse moors of the Scottish highlands, and the casinos of the French Riviera. He would meticulously study the movements of his titled and ultra-rich quarries (an easier task then than now, as many members of the Victorian aristocracy announced their vacations in the social columns of the press).

He would then hover, adopting the natural cover of a member of the society he was penetrating, until a moment presented itself (an encounter with a friend or the arrival of a celebrity) when he could effect a rapid snatch of a jewel case and brazen his way across a hotel or railway station without attracting the attention of the-suitably deferential-porters or police.

Among his more celebrated victims were the Duchess of Devonshire, the Duchess of Sutherland and the Maharaja of Alwar-all of whom had renowned collections of gemstones. His occasional care-lessness and his infatuation with one particular Gaiety Girl, whose heart he thought he could win with diamonds but who was to betray him, eventually led to a series of prison sentences, and he ended his life lonely, homeless and penniless.

One of the most difficult aspects of being a top-quality jewel thief must always be the disposal of the haul. The author sensibly devotes considerable space to telling the story of London’s leading fence: a sinister character called Joseph Grizzard, who ran a legitimate jewellry business beside his handling of stolen goods, and who terrified, mutilated or murdered-in Mafia style-anyone who might think of giving him away.

Duncan Hamilton’s earlier books have mostly been about the world of sport, and his style ‘tongues wagged at piston speed’-may not appeal to all readers, but he tells a lively tale with verve and panache that do justice to his incorrigible subject.

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