A tale of audacity and chutzpah, this book, by Nicholas Booth, details the lives and escapades of two American brothers, George and Austin Bidwell, and their ‘colleagues’ as they attempt to defraud the Bank of England.
The Thieves of Threadneedle Street is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde in its breathless chases – criminals outmanoeuvring the cops and their victims across vast expanses of rural and urban America, and then via the Atlantic to London.
This breathlessness is the book’s main problem. Sometimes, it moves so quickly across countries and time – backwards and forwards across Victorian society – that it can be hard to keep up. The division of chapters into short sections by way of date, place and time would work well as a device, but it is used too frequently.
Likewise, although only a minor stylistic point, the use of flowery fonts and dotted lines to denote changes in time or place are actually distracting – a stylistic annoyance. Too many fonts are used, in short – one for chapter headings, one for section headings, one more for the main text – and they don’t really complement each other.
But more importantly, and on a more positive note, this is a fascinating story and the author has attempted to move it beyond the standard narrative by means of this to-ing and fro-ing, which should be commended. The central setting is the trial of the Bidwells in 1873, where their multiple aliases and prior offences were detailed; from this setting, the exploration of their past is undertaken both by prosecutors and by the author.
The Bidwells are notoriously hard to pin down, due to their habit of each taking credit for successful crimes, their various names, and the tendency of the Victorian press to be a bit slapdash with the facts. Booth fully recognises and acknowledges these problems, and the fact that he is able to create such a full account of them is an achievement in itself.
Despite the slightly hectic feel of the narrative, this is still a compelling narrative that says almost as much about the Victorian press, law and detective work as it does about the criminal themselves.
The Thieves of Threadneedle Street, by Nicholas Booth, is published by The History Press.