Thursday, September 07, 2017

Thieves of Threadneedle Street: A True Crime that Is as Good as a Good Mystery

Book Review: Thieves of Threadneedle Street by Nicholas Booth
Version: Hard cover library borrow

The full title is Thieves of Threadneedle Street, "The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England". It nearly broke me as a reader, so long and convoluted a narrative is this true crime story. The telling of the story weaves back and forth across time and place so often as to often be hard to follow. Not the fault of the author, however, is the difficulty in keeping track of all the names, the aliases used by the characters who perpetrated the crimes, which also made it difficult to keep track of the story line.

If you look at Thieves of Threadneedle Street as a detective novel instead of a true crime work, you could hardly find a more amazing story in a Sherlock Holmes tale. In 1873, two American brothers, Austin and George Bidwell, in collaboraton with two other Americans, George Macdonnel and Edward Noyes Hills, exploited a weakness in the lending system at the Bank of England, along with other banks in England, France, and Germany. They learned their craft frauding businesses and banks in America. Using both their own names and multiple aliases, living in multiple hotels and doing business in various multiple companies, they lived off the good intentions and naivete of the ancient institutions of Europe to borrow, sell, and launder money, knowing their loans wouldn't come due for three months, by which time they would be well gone. Because of their use of aliases, no one would be sure who did what, covering the tracks of their misdeeds, or so they thought. But as with all good detective novels -- or as in the case of this true crime story -- criminals always make mistakes, and a good detective will always catch them. So it was that Willie Pinkerton, of the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere in America, who had been hunting them down for their crimes in the United States, became active in the case for the Bank of England and brought them to justice.

The Bidwells, Macdonnel, and Hills were geniuses in forgery. If not for a few mistakes and one eagle-eyed examiner at the Bank of England, they might have gotten away with it. The four forgers were also very slippery and had nearly escaped the clutches of law enforcement, often aided by dishonest police who were easily bribed. Their adventures took them across the continent of Europe and eventually to Cuba and back to America in an attempt to escape. Pinkerton found them and brought them back to London to trial. Even so, the Bidwells had arranged multiple times for conspirators to break them, even at the last minute, but Pinkerton and the stalwart British police figured it out and stopped them.

Interesting to me living in West Michigan (USA), the Bidwells have a connection to this area. They were born in Adrian, Michigan, and when they were young their family moved to Grand Rapids, where their father ran a confectionery store. They owned a cabin at Black Lake near Muskegon, Michigan. The confectionery business failed, and the family moved to New York City, which is where the Bidwells came into contact with criminals and learned forgery. I wasn't aware of the local connections when I picked the story off the shelves.

Now, I am not a fan of true crime reads. I do like a good mystery and I am definitely a fan of a well-written Sherlock Holmes story. It was in reading Thieves of Threadneedle Street in this sense that I came to enjoy it. If it were just not so convoluted in the telling I might have enjoyed it more.

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