16 June 2011

Book Review: The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet by Duncan Hamilton

Title:The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet: The Great Victorian Jewel Thief
Author: Duncan Hamilton
Publisher: Century Random House
ISBN: 9781846058134
Format: Hardcover
311 pages (including Author's Notes and Index)
Genre: Non-Fiction
Review copy provided by the publisher

The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet is a fascinating account of the life of a man who was famous in Victorian times for stealing jewels from the rich while constantly evading the police. As the book's subtitle states, Harry was The Great Victorian Jewel Thief. But who was Harry? Why was he known as Harry the Valet? Why was he so remarkable? How did he evade capture for so long?

The author answers all these questions and more. He provides an intensive study about the man who committed the crimes, and shows respect for Harry's skills as a charming thief. At the same time,the author portrays Harry's victims (dukes and duchesses, earls and baronets, and wealthy businessmen) in much the same way that Harry viewed them - as careless, spoiled, shallow members of wealthy society. Indeed, his victims almost seemed to deserve having their jewels stolen.

The story of how Harry refined his talent for stealing is told through numerous vignettes that show how his crimes were committed. Harry carefully observed the journeys taken by members of the aristocracy and thus predicted when the most opportune moment was available for him to steal the jewels.

Harry also studied the lives of his intended victims and he kept a record of their habits and their friends. He dressed in expensive clothes and moved in the same circles but always used a different pseudonym. In so doing, he managed to live nearly the same luxurious lifestyle as the rich people he was stealing from while also managing to evade the police.

He moved across the landscape like the Great Fire. Most of these thefts went unreported - often to protect the victim from embarrassment - and others went unsolved. The police attributed them nonetheless to the Valet, who was soon a thief of repute to Scotland Yard and among other criminals.

The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet isn't just about Harry though but also about his wealthy victims, and about the police force.The details about the shortcomings of a disorganised Scotland Yard (as it was back then) versus the cunning of the Valet are made very apparent.The way trials were held and the way some prisoners got special treatment is also covered in the book.

The author obviously did extensive research as the book is filled with lots of fascinating information and specific details about people, places and events.

The author provides a comprehensive analysis about London society in Victorian times, particularly that of the lives of the aristocracy.The rich and famous were the focus for gossip and scandal just as they are today.

Ultimately, it was Harry's love for a woman who betrayed him that was his downfall. His infatuation led to a particular crime, stealing jewels (worth nearly £2 million today) from the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland in October 1898, which was to become one of the most widely reported crimes of that era.

The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet is an enthralling story of an enigmatic real-life character who enjoyed an extravagent lifestyle as well as an infamous career as a skilled jewel thief. It's a true story but reads like detective fiction. I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy.

If you are a fan of true crime stories such as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale which also took place in the Victorian era, you will enjoy reading The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet. 

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