London Review of Crooks

Robert Marshall-Andrews

  • Rough Justice: The Extraordinary Truth about Charles Richardson and his Gang by Robert Parker
    Fontana, 352 pp, £1.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 00 636354 7
  • Web of Corruption: The Story of John Poulson and T. Dan Smith by Raymond Fitzwalter and David Taylor
    Granada, 282 pp, £12.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 246 10915 7
  • Inside Boss: South Africa’s Secret Police by Gordon Winter
    Penguin, 640 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 14 005751 X
  • Crime in Wartime: A Social History of Crime in World War II by Edward Smithies
    Allen and Unwin, 219 pp, £12.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 04 364020 6

The first of these books, Rough Justice, is 350 pages of documentary journalism on the rise and fall of the notorious Richardson gang, which operated a reign of terror, extortion and fraud in parts of London from the late 1950s to the famous torture trial of 1967. These operations were restored to topicality after Charles Richardson’s escape from prison in May 1980 and his subsequent letter to the Times. The first question which needs to be asked is whether such books should be written at all. And if they are written, should any serious notice be taken of them? The existence of violent, sadistic and resourceful criminals is an unhappy fact of life, and even if the author goes to considerable pains to underline their culpability and to scorn their protestations of innocence, which Mr Parker certainly does, there is no doubt that this type of highly personalised saga (it is ‘Charlie’ and ‘Eddy’ throughout) invites a substantial degree of sympathy with the villains and dignifies their lives with attention they ill deserve. These, however, are difficult questions to answer in relation to the present book. It is meticulously researched and compellingly written, for all its affectedly brawny style. But does it contribute anything other than a chronology of cheerless greed and foul deeds set against a background of scrap dealers and flashy night-clubs? The answer, delivered with considerable reluctance, is yes, this is a useful book for criminologists and laymen alike.

This judgment owes little to the characters of the brothers themselves or of their brutal and inadequate cronies. Still less are there any rewarding conclusions to be drawn from their drab and delinquent backgrounds. What is interesting, as so often, are the men and systems which connive at or allow the spectacular growth of criminal enterprises, and the inflated and grandiose incompetence which finally destroys them. It is a melancholy fact, well documented in the book, that neither the Richardson gang nor the Krays could conceivably have done their business without the knowledge and connivance of the Police at a very high level. What caused their downfall, also well documented, was a belief that their power had reached such heights that, in London, mass armed warfare in public was within the bounds of their immunity, and that, in South Africa, vast mining ventures could be successfully pursued in partnership with a gang of patently second-rate con-men and drunken romantics. Of some interest, too, is the work that Charles Richardson carried out for BOSS in London: this included the burglaries of Amnesty, Zapu and Anti-Apartheid, and (possibly) the attempted bugging of No 10 Downing Street. The claim (in the blurb) that such revelations are ‘staggering’ is perhaps over-enthusiastic. Richardson, like most of his ilk, was naturally right-wing, and having been introduced to George Winter, ex-burglar, crime reporter and BOSS spy, and, more important, to Winter’s wife, Richardson was an obvious recruit for dirty tricks in London. He also plainly believed that his work for BOSS would provide him with favoured treatment from the South African Government for the pursuit of legitimate business. That belief showed a degree of political naivety not uncommon amongst successful gangsters. An inability to realise when they have reached the limits of tolerance, and of their own abilities, tends to destroy them. This is the important message of the book. Evil is rarely stopped by good men alone. It is more often stopped by grave defects of character and of self-awareness: no one else dares tell such criminals what they need to know.

Anyone in search of an object lesson in how to write about crime need look no further than Web of Corruption, which tells the story of John Poulson and T. Dan Smith. Raymond Fitzwalter and David Taylor took eight years to research and write their analysis of the most far-reaching corruption trial of this century. The opening summary is startling.

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