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Alice Diamond And The Forty Elephants: Britain's First Female Crime Syndicate

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The Forty Elephants were unique in the annals of British crime. Emerging from the slums like fallen angels, these glamorous, lawless young women plundered fashion stores and jewel shops, picked their lovers from among London’s toughest gangsters and terrorised their rivals. Soon they were renowned, and feared, as the country’s first all-female crime syndicate.

They first rose to notoriety under Mary Carr, a beautiful artists’ model known as ‘Queen Thief’. But it was her successor, Alice Diamond, who led the Forties to their greatest infamy. Born the oldest of eight children in a workhouse hospital, she became the cleverest shoplifter in Britain. Newspapers described her gang as ‘notorious for their good looks, fine stature, and smart clothing’ as they travelled the country, stealing the finest silks, gems and furs, hiding their plunder in specially-made skirts and knickers and spending their ill-gotten gains in a whirlwind of mad excess.

304 pages, Kindle Edition

First published October 15, 2015

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About the author

Brian McDonald

39 books44 followers
Brian McDonald contributes frequently to New York City newspapers, including The New York Times. His first book, My Father's Gun, won critical raves and became the subject of a major History Channel documentary series. McDonald is also the author of Last Call at Elaine's, Indian Summer, and Safe Harbor: A Murder in Nantucket. He lives in Manhattan.

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5 stars
12 (15%)
4 stars
19 (24%)
3 stars
21 (26%)
2 stars
14 (17%)
1 star
13 (16%)
Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,612 followers
August 16, 2021
Great title, but sadly lacking material. Despite the promises we actually hear virtually nothing about Alice Diamond herself (I assume she's namechecked for the cool name alone). There are a lot of repetitive accounts of rather boring crimes (mostly shoplifting, recounted in astounding detail), with a *lot* of talk about about men. Very little sense of the human hinterland behind the repetitive theft-violence- prison narratives. Also the text refers apparenty without irony to 'an enigmatic Chinaman', JFC. Disappointing.

Profile Image for Amy.
164 reviews
November 24, 2019
This book is a misleading, hot mess. It's basically fact vomit. Everything is thrown in with no rhyme, no reason, and no guiding narrative. And don't give me that, "it's non-fiction there is no narrative" bullshit. For a book to be successful and readable, it needs to be organized. It needs to have a clear voice and organization so that the reader can follow along and not get lost. You can have the most interesting subject matter, but if no one can follow along, no one but you will know it.

There are lots of ways to structure a book. Maybe it's organized chronologically. Maybe it's organized by group. Maybe it's organized by topic (less likely in a biography, but possible). Maybe you organize it by following the journey of the researcher. There are lots of ways to find a story and an organization. I mean, honestly, most text books are better written than this. They're not always the most interesting, but text books are usually organized into topics. Two paragraph biographies, in random orders as we come across people is bad. Word association is a bad organization style. It is the definition of random chaotic. It's like someone just copied and printed all of their research notes, without bothering to organize or re-write them.

Pick your story. Pick your organization. And this just didn't.

And finally, the title of this book indicates a strong story, which is why I called this book misleading in the beginning. That and the fact that it doesn't focus on the women. It doesn't even focus on the Forty Elephants! I was excited about this book. A female crime syndicate. Now *that* had to be a fascinating story and one I was so excited to learn. And then it's just facts thrown together, without any focus. And then the guy had the gall to say he needed to focus on the men for a minute. I'm sorry, but no. When you haven't managed to actually address your topic, you can't take a break to go focus on the men.

This book failed in all ways for me. It needed to have a clear story to tell and it didn't. There may be gems a plenty in this book, but you'd need reams of notebooks, time, and a serious drive to be able to understand any of it. If you do, congratulations and I hope you find something interesting. You'll also have gotten an education in research techniques, as that is what it will take to actually understand or glean any information from this book.
Profile Image for Brie.
214 reviews18 followers
February 23, 2019
I picked up this book from the Museum of London's "Crime Museum Uncovered" exhibition that ran from 2015-16. I don't usually get books from exhibitions but I think the difference here lay in one of the exhibition's take-away reflections: Why are we so interested in crime?

Certainly, when I saw this book on the shelf I had to get it. Female crime gang? I couldn't resist. (I didn't steal it, just so we're clear.)

I thought this was a well written book, well-plotted and adventurous as times. There was so much information for the dozens and dozens of men and women tied to the Forty Elephants that gave each person's story a fully-fleshed feel. It's also a credit to the thoroughness of police records at the time. I enjoyed reading about the women of the gang, their devil-may-care attitudes. In truth this book is what we sorely need – uncovered histories of women, especially in professions like crime which are generally deemed a male pursuit. These women were "wicked", "ruthless", meticulous, and systematized. They elected to live life as they saw fit, and we need more histories of women who don't fall under the historical societal ideal.
Profile Image for Johanna Keim .
20 reviews1 follower
September 25, 2019
The title, the cover and the blurb are highly misleading! Instead of a well-crafted, in-depth study of the operations and interpersonal relationships of the Forty Elephants, there is only a tsunami of irrelevant, superfluous information/ tangents, superficial details of the Forty's themselves, far too much on the men in their lives then about the women themselves. Poorly written, only use for surface reference.
Profile Image for Jane.
2,681 reviews52 followers
December 17, 2016
A gang of women criminals calling themselves the forty elephants? McDonald caught me with the title. Imagine the BBC production . . . Mr. Selfridge meets Rumpole of the Bailey with lots of furs and jewelry thrown in for fun.
But no such luck. This was a terribly written, badly organized waste of paper that goes straight to my Dan Brown shelf of trashy junk that should never have been published. I was robbed!
Profile Image for Liesl Bauer.
3 reviews
August 15, 2022
Today I'm doing something I rarely do, and something I've never done: I'm going to stop reading a book before the end, and I'm writing a review for a book I've not finished (and I don't plan on finishing). My husband bought me this book because he knows I enjoy historical fiction and non-fiction and thought I'd enjoy reading about an all-female crime syndicate. I tried to set aside my apprehension that this book was written by a man, but after he spends a few pages positing why, in the history of women, some women might resort to crime, he ultimately spends the most time suggesting that women resorted to crime as a means to acquire pretty clothes to have a vibrant social life. Seriously.

The author clearly has a love and wealth of knowledge for the history of crime, but can't seem to stop talking about men. As he suggests women created their own all-female syndicate as a mirror to their male counterparts, it never seems to once occur to him (at least not in the first 6o pages), that women might have sought emancipation from the patriarchy, and that working together, women were able to become a force to be reckoned with, and achieve accomplishments that were impossible as an individual female at that point in history.

If you love spending hours going down wikipedia rabbit holes, this might be the book for you. It reads like a maze of facts, names and dates without much of an attempt to make connections or create themes (beyond criminal activity)... again, at least not in the first 60 pages, and my patience couldn't last beyond that. Alice Diamond was mentioned literally only once or twice, as an aside, in the first 60 pages, but dozens of unconnected and connected names, crimes, and stolen goods are accounted for in those pages. I felt like I was studying for a history test, trying to memorize and glean meaning from all of these disparate facts.
Profile Image for Liberté.
230 reviews
September 25, 2019
This was an interesting book on the history of female gangs in London. The book actually covers far more than Alice Diamond and her period of reign over the Forty Elephants; the author goes back centuries covering the history of female criminals in England before getting to the 20th century. There is also extensive history of Diamond's compatriots, the men who sometimes helped and were often in jail, and even a female private detective employed by department stores who had relative success at catching shoplifters. It's an educational piece but because so much of the history is fragmented and we don't know what we don't know, it sometimes reads more like a crime blotter than a history book. Regardless, it's an interesting and engaging read about an incredibly determined and skilled group of people - who happened to be criminals.
Profile Image for Daniel.
8 reviews4 followers
June 9, 2019
I went into this book expecting a detailed description of the Forty Elephants, their organisation and heists. What I got was an endless sequence of unrelated criminal convictions in the first half of the book, while the second half gets lost in repeating the same uninteresting details about robberies and equippment over and over again.
It seems as if there was no material whatsoever for writing this book and as a consequence it's about 250 pages too long and mostly boring.
Profile Image for Kim.
109 reviews2 followers
February 18, 2018
Many interesting stories and escapades packed into this book about a long-running gang of shoplifters and their associates. The first half seems to be a hodgepodge of lady shoplifter stories starting in the 18th century (seemingly mostly unrelated to the Forty Elephants) to set the tone that this type of crime was characteristic of female criminals in England, which was slightly disappointing (though the stories were interesting)!

It picks up with the formal introduction of the Forties in mid-to-late 19th century, but comes into its own with its depiction of the gang in the 20th century. The book ends with short biographies of other associates not previously mentioned in the book, which was slightly confusing to read as, while describing the life of the supposed main entry, the biography would veer into telling tales of the person's related associates. Perhaps a good illustration of the confusion, tangled relationships and personalities that made up the underworld? Still, a good read!
Profile Image for Bradley Harper.
6 reviews4 followers
May 5, 2020
The writing is a bit hard to folow but for someone interested in this fascinating sub-culture the information is priceless.
Profile Image for Alice.
1,610 reviews44 followers
May 27, 2023
If this had been work by one of my (uni) students, I would tell them it's badly structured and confusing. Lacks prioritisation of information.
55 reviews4 followers
January 28, 2019
A comprehensive account of London’s famous all-female gang. The author’s thorough research left no stone unturned and at times, this detail exceeded my reader needs. Otherwise, an accurate depiction of the social forces faced by women and the urban poor.
Profile Image for Julie Holland.
164 reviews
September 26, 2022
I agree with everyone else who has wrote a review on this book, however, I have a much more leniency because I can see why. Yes, it lacked information and the organization could have been a lot better, but research is difficult just in itself, then criminal research is even hard due to their need to cover their tracks and use twenty different names, and then for him to try and research on women criminals, even harder. So, I understand why there wasn't a ton and why the organization was a bit scattered.

I thoroughly enjoyed this though. The moment I heard about Alice Diamond, I knew that I wanted to know more. It is fascinating to me, and McDonald gave me much much more than Google did, so I applaud him for that. Now, some of the reviews say there was very very little on Diamond herself and that McDonald was just using the name to be eye-catching, and I can agree with that. However, there is still information about her in the book, so I don't think it was merely a ploy to get attention. And do I feel a little unsatisfied, wanting more about Diamond and her innerworkings with the Forty Elephants? - Absolutely. But again for what McDonald was researching and taking everything under consideration, it makes sense that he offered what he could.

I found this book very helpful and super interesting to learn about. It was a tad dry as everyone says, but I didn't mind it so much. I guess I was just happy to be learning about Diamond and the Forty Elephants at all. I also found it very interesting that they worked alongside other gangs, particularly the McDonald brothers and their gang...the author's last name is McDonald. So, I was also very curious as to what connection he could have during the whole thing.

All in all, the inner crime working and the Forty Elephants are fascinating, which is why I didn't mind the book being a bit unorganized and dry.
Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews

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