In October 1898, on route to Paris’ Gare du Nord station, the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland’s jewels were stolen from her train carriage. More than 40 pieces, worth nearly £2m today, disappeared that night and the perpetrator along with them.
It would become one of the most widely reported heists of the late Victorian era, but what no one knew was that the man who committed this most daring and well planned theft had already committed nine almost identical crimes.
A man who wore bespoke suits and handmade shoes; who used a dozen pseudonyms to dust over his tracks; who belonged to three smart London clubs and lived in the luxury of West End hotels; whose staple diet was champagne and whisky; who was pursued by London’s top detectives for five and a half years and – by their own admission – ‘proved smarter’ than them; and who fell so much in love with a women who he would steal for and lie for but who would eventually betray him.
The true story of the most notorious Victorian Jewel thief, The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet has all the hallmarks of the finest detective fiction, but has romance at its heart and a love story which endured on Harry’s part for the rest of his life, despite ultimately destroying him.
This true story takes us back to a snapshot of Harry’s childhood, the importance of which sets him off on his amazing criminal career. His father instils in him the need to ‘better’ himself and introduces him into the homes of the rich via his job of providing a picture framing service. After his death, one petty incident of stealing, the resultant fear of waiting to be found out and then the immense relief of it going un-noticed is the trigger to this lifestyle not the norm in society. You can’t help wondering if his father hadn’t died, how different Harry’s life may have been!
Although this is factual, there is no ‘dryness’ and the writing flows leading you on from one criminal act to another. Alongside the crimes you will read about life in Victorian times in London, Brighton, Scotland (for the grouse season) and Monte Carlo.
There are some fascinating facts running alongside Harry’s jewellery thefts. If you are a family history researcher and your ancestors were in the police force, there is interesting information detailing what the force was like in the beginning and about forensics. There is also quite a lot of information about the ‘Gaiety Girls’. I have Irish ancestors that lived and baptised children at St Luke’s (Harry’s childhood area). It was great to read about the reality of how it would have been for them!
From the obsessive way that Harry researched his ‘targets’ it wasn’t hard to see how that could be transferred into the way he fell in love. The only difference being the clear and precise thinking (objectivity) as opposed to love blanketing those skills and being subjective.
It was interesting to read how newspapers played the same part in society as they do today – the rich and famous using them to promote themselves and outdo each other (and thereby giving Harry the information he needed). Selling your story appears no different today as it did then!
Although the ending is quite sad, it’s not that different to thousands who lived during the Victorian era.
As someone with an interest in family history I understand how difficult it must have been for Duncan Hamilton to put Harry’s identity together – with all the pseudonyms it would have been tremendously difficult to trace Harry on census etc. I tried to find information on Harry on the Old Bailey Online but had no success. Duncan Hamilton must have had some very frustrating moments researching Harry not only in locating the information (very time consuming) but in using the equipment (microfiches etc) and piecing it all together.
I would recommend this as a read to anyone interested in the Victorian era as well as anyone who has an interest in criminals of the past.
With Duncan Hamilton’s book, Harry and those who touched his life have not been forgotten, laying in unmarked graves – which can only be a positive thing!
I would like to thank Natalie Higgins (Century and Arrow Publicity Director) from Random House for sending me a copy to review