A raucous account of “the largest burglary in the history of England,” committed by unrepentant, elderly career criminals.
In his debut, Montreal-based New York Times Canada correspondent Bilefsky combines humor, pathos, and technical nitty-gritty in a clearly written procedural. In the spring of 2015, the gang burgled the vault at the Hutton Garden Safe Deposit, the central storehouse of London’s diamond district, after three years of planning. The author writes that the tale’s “villains,” despite their physical infirmities, were “possessed by a fearlessness borne of age. What was there to lose?” The crew members resemble characters from a British crime movie, having devoted their lives to the robbery profession; indeed, the ringleader had participated in the notorious heist portrayed in the 2006 film The Bank Job. Bilefsky captures the meticulous, complex planning of the break-in, noting how “old-school burglars across London had sniffed out that something big was afoot.” The robbery displayed both brazen expertise and clumsy improvisation, with the thieves even stepping out to buy additional heavy equipment to penetrate the vault: “They wanted what they’d set out to take…$19 million worth of gold, gems, diamonds, and cash.” The theft’s discovery created a media circus and alarmed the close-knit community of old-school jewelers. “The shock was visceral and heartbreaking,” writes the author. Yet, Scotland Yard’s elite Flying Squad quickly identified the malefactors by analyzing London’s pervasive closed-circuit network, followed up by intensive surveillance and wiretaps, which captured the old thieves’ injudicious bragging. As one detective noted, “after the heist, their age kicked in.” Following mass arrests, the principal thieves struck plea bargains, leaving frustrated prosecutors to try the conspiracy’s motley hangers-on. Bilefsky takes a balanced approach, acknowledging the media-cultivated public appeal of the gang’s old reprobates but also noting how the losses from the safe deposit wiped out many businesses and families’ savings.
A well-researched, irreverent tale of a serious yet fascinating crime and the anachronistic underworld that sparked it.