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Gunmen in Piccadilly (Edgar Wallace)

Found in the Haining archives - this slightly scaremongering article by Edgar Wallace from Nash's Pall Mall Magazine in March 1931. Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was the adopted son of a Billingsgate fish porter in London, and largely self-educated - the newspaper boy who became one of the most famous writers in the world. He sold millions of books, but he was plagued by debts due to an extravagant lifestyle. He left Britain for the United States in 1931, only to die in Hollywood in 1932, aged 56, after writing the original story for King Kong. His body was returned by ocean liner in honour, only to be reunited with an ocean of outstanding bills.It is said all his debts were paid off in a few years from massive book sales. This article was copyrighted from America and one can imagine him churning it out in Hollywood to pay the bills. The title belies the content which is about criminal gangs anywhere in Britain- even art thieves. A BBC radio programme earlier this year by thriller writer Mark Billingham on Edgar Wallace (The Man Who Wrote Too Much?) suggested he was somewhat forgotten. He may not be much read anymore but his books are still collected throughout the world…

The Possibility of–

Gunmen in Piccadilly

  There are in London small and completely isolated groups of men who work as independent units, rob jewellers, burgle, commit smash-and-grab raids, practise confidence tricks, print counterieit money, and commit the crimes which are peculiar to every great city.
  In the sense of their operating together as a unit they are gangs, but they-are entirely disconnected one from the other and have no common plan or common fund, and none of the esprit de corps of gangdom.
  Gangs do not flourish in London, which has been recognised by Continental and international criminals as being the greatest of the whispering galleries. Here the stool pigeon has his definite place. The terrific punishment which follows his discovery, as in America and in France, deters him in his questionable efforts in the interests of justice.
  London is the home of the informer, so much so that there was a door at Scotland Yard which was known as the " informer's door."
  The police have the routine of the underworld at their finger-tips. Every burglar, every known criminal, is tabulated and cross-indexed; and to this information there is added the " nose," by which complimentary phrase the informer is known, and it is only when the foreigner invades the Metropolis that the police are baffled.
  By “foreigner” is meant a man who has been operating in the north of England and decides to give London the once over. If he has ever been caught in London or if he has ever been arrested in any city for an offense sufficiently picturesque to attract the attention of Scotland Yard, he is not a foreigner; but latterly so many young men have come into the illicit game, men unknown to the police until they make their acquaintance in a way not particularly pleasing to the gentlemen affected, that it is very often a difficult business to discover them by the process of elimination.
  It often happens that members of one unit drift to another. A little gang may be broken up, and its members adhere to one which is intact, and lend their valuable and expert services in the committal of some new crime. So little cohesion is there amongst the English criminals that there have been occasions when two separate gangs, unknown one to the other, have decided to burgle a jeweller’s store and arrived on the spot simultaneously.
  Neither in England nor in any part of the world does there exist that gang which so often exercises the imagination of amateur criminologists. It is generally believed–but not in Fleet Street–that there exists a very powerful and discriminating gang which specialises in the theft of Old Masters. From time to time pictures are cut out of their frames and spirited away, and it is a pretty conception that the object of the thieves is to hide their treasure for a number of years and then, on the promise of a reward, produce the pictures they have stolen, to their own great profit. It is supposed that their numbers include men versed in art values, connoisseurs who carefully mark down a picture and organise its theft.
  The truth about picture thefts can be told simply. In the first place, no professional thief looks beyond to-morrow. He steals something he can immediately sell and, as a rule, the fence, or receiver, has already seen and priced the articles to be stolen before they are lifted. The fence will stand outside a jeweller's shop with the operator and the two will haggle as to what is the value of the jewels in the window. When the fence has made his appraisement and the inevitable haggling has ceased, a bargain is struck, and the thief knows exactly what he will receive when he hands those jewels to the man whose job it is to dispose of them.
  No fence worthy of the name would dream of putting a value upon a picture, however precious it might be. He too is in the game for immediate profit. There is no market whatever for Old Masters, no super-fence with artistic leanings who would buy them for the joy of possession, and there is no earthly means by which, if a receiver paid ten pounds for a Velasquez, he could resell it for eleven.
  But criminals are dull people. They are not clever. They are skillful artisans who can open windows and unlock doors and do their work with a minimum of light. A thief is attracted to a picture by the fact that if he steals it he has acquired something of enormous value. If there were in my house a manuscript which newspaper writers proclaimed priceless, and for which I had refused an offer of a hundred thousand pounds from an American virtuoso, a thief reading these accounts would only be impressed by the fact that if he acquired that manuscript by illicit means he would be in possession of something which, if it could be realised, would keep him in luxury for the rest of his life. It is this temptation of values which so often tempts an otherwise level-headed burglar and induces him to take an immense amount of trouble to acquire something which has no more value to him than a paper of pins.
  There is no machinery of negotiation. He has no friends at court. He does not even know that if the picture is insured the underwriters will give him a substantial sum for its return.
  A few years ago a man stole a very valuable picture from a Continental museum. He got it away, and, once his booty was home and hidden, it might have been a roll of American cloth for all the use it was to him. He had no method of negotiating its sale or even its return, and in the end he was caught because his vanity led him to display this art treasure to a number of acquaintances, one of whom betrayed him.
  The picture thieves are not mischievous. The stolen article is, as a rule, treated with the greatest reverence, not because of its artistic value, but because the burglar regards it as a fragile thing which, if returned intact, would secure him a competence.
  There is only one case, as far as my recollection serves me, of a thief ever reaping the least reward for his perseverance and ingenuity. Pictures that have been stolen and hidden for a long time are usually discovered in the possession of some disreputable character other than the thief, and it is history that the possessor at the time of the discovery had not paid more than a few shillings for his acquisition.
  There is yet another aspect of the criminal situation which can be profitably explained. There are people who believe that the worst aspect of American crime will be duplicated in this country, that we shall yet live to see robberies and hold-ups committed with the aid of machine guns and automatics. I do not think anybody need lose a night's sleep over this possibility. Apart from the question of temperament, there is an enormous difference between the two nations. Great Britain will remain an unpopular battleground for the gangster because it consists of two islands. The closest point between Britain and the Continent of Europe is twenty-one miles distant. Through that bottle-neck all ingoing and outgoing humanity is sifted by a brilliant staff of Scotland Yard detectives. No man wanted by the police or known to the police as having committed a murder has ever finally escaped from these islands. I think Crippen was one of the few who got away to the Continent of America, only to be arrested on his arrival and returned.
  The point to be remembered is that in eight out of every ten cases of undiscovered murders, the police know the culprit but are unable to bring the charge home to him.
  The gun gangs that work in New York and Chicago may lie low for a little time, but generally they find it expedient to get outside the operations of the State law, and this is very simply carried out. An offender under the laws of the State of New York can find himself in New Jersey in a quarter of an hour; an offender in Chicago can cross the Indiana line by motor-car before the body of his victim is cold.
  In this country, too, the law is very simple and very drastic. Murderers, picturesque or drab, are just murderers, and go the way of their kind. Both the Bench and the Bar of Great Britain are beyond suspicion. No man, whatever his wealth or position may be, can escape punishment following the crime in this country. This is one of our proudest traditions; it is also one of the greatest deterrents.
  I know of a criminal who for the last thirty years has been passing between America and Europe. In all the thirty years he has never once landed in England. He has a great respect for the English people–and English justice. He told a friend of mine that even the sight of lighthouses, coming up the Channel, made him shudder.
  “England is stir (prison),” he said. Remembering the huge influx of Americans into Europe every year, it is a remarkable fact that there are fewer Americans in English prisons than people of any other foreign nation.
  There will always be hot-headed amateurs who visualize a life of ease and comfort from the practice of criminal methods. The hold-ups in England are committed by men between the ages of 18 and 24; burglars who have been found in possession of loaded pistols are of the same age. Old hands, knowing that a loaded gun means an extra seven years on their sentence, never take the risk. One of the blackest descriptions that can appear in the "Hue and Cry" is the significant note after the wanted man's name: "Dangerous: carries firearms." Conviction on two offences of this kind means practically a life's imprisonment--and in England life means life.

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