13 September 2007

Book Review: The Thieves' Opera by Lucy Moore

The Thieves’ Opera In London in the early eighteenth century, two men from - apparently - opposite sides of the law rose to similar heights of fame and notoriety. Jack Sheppard started out as a reasonably well-behaved apprentice, until he found himself with nothing much left to learn and two years to wait until he could begin to work for himself. In his boredom he turned to a life of crime in the form of housebreaking. But his real celebrity came from his multiple dramatic escapes from various London prisons, including the cells of Newgate. The poorer sections of the populace loved seeing the authority of the rich being so boldly flouted, and Jack became a hero.

Jonathan Wild styled himself ‘Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland’. He set up the Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property, reuniting people with their pilfered possessions, and sent numerous criminals to the gallows. London’s wealthier residents were so pleased with this service that they didn’t look too closely at the man who provided it. Wild had abandoned a wife and son in Wolverhampton, and after reaching London spent four years in a debtors’ prison. There he became acquainted with a sizeable portion of the underworld; and after being released and briefly apprenticed to another thief-taker, it was easy enough for him to take control. He recruited and trained thieves, and had no compunction about turning them in when it suited him. Meanwhile he presented himself to his clients as merely a middleman facilitating contact between them and the thieves - for a price, which was invariably more than the item’s black market value. Things went well until Jack Sheppard began his criminal career; caring nothing for authority, he threatened Wild’s stranglehold on the London underworld. A furious Wild became hell-bent on seeing his nemesis swing; but by the time he finally did manage to get him to the gallows Sheppard had the support of the populace, who didn’t look kindly on the man who had impeached their hero.

I’ve been rather fascinated by Wild since meeting him in fictional form in David Liss’s fabulous A Conspiracy of Paper. How could someone manage to play both sides of the law so well, and for so long? The answer turned out to be quite simple: brains, ruthlessness, and four years with little to do except help fellow inmates get around the law. I discovered the history of Jack Sheppard more recently, through a reference in Dracula. Put the two together, and you have an interesting book with plenty of detours through the crime and justice (after a fashion) of the early eighteenth century. These tangents added to the main history, which was a tragic one not just because it ended in both their deaths, but because of the sense that they could have had equal success with a longer life expectancy on the right side of the law. Or then again, maybe not; Wild does seem to have had a taste for the low life, if the contents of his cellar - excavated in 1844 - are anything to go by: implements of torture and human remains. It says a lot about the parlous state of law enforcement at the time, that he was a necessary part of it. And it’s ironic that the standard police technique of dividing suspects and encouraging one to flip on the rest was developed by a criminal mastermind.

There’s more information about Jonathan Wild than Jack Sheppard; understandable, given the former’s much longer career. When the latter appears, his exploits are audacious, ingenious and even comical; it’s easy to see how he acquired such great and lasting fame.

Rating: B

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776