Lance Charnes's Reviews > The Investigator

The Investigator by Michael Knox
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bookshelves: nonfiction-crime-espionage, nonfiction-history-international, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who think customs mysteries are a neglected genre

Mike Knox was a Newcastle lad with no great ambitions and little love for school when he followed his brother into Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, mostly for the secure employment and a shot at a pension. For the next umpteen years, from the early 1960s to 1996, Knox worked his way up through the ranks to become a senior policy-making officer in HMCE. Along the way, he spent many years in the service's Investigation Division, chasing down smugglers and tax cheats.

The Investigator is mostly about those years.

HMCE was in charge of collecting duties and excise taxes, excluding illicit imports and stopping prohibited exports. Back in the pre-EU, pre-WTO days, each nation kept a thicket of duties, taxes, and regulations that protected usually failing domestic industries and often-substandard products from the rigors of external competition. Knox busted most of the dodges on offer from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. He uncovered tax fiddles through fake exports (he arrested the future Sir Richard Branson on that one, at the dawn of Virgin Records) and misreported fuel sales; seized illicit pornography (back when nations still thought they could keep out foreign porn); went after pig smugglers in Ireland and pot smugglers in Morocco; and investigated Rolls-Royce's involvement in a scheme to illegally export military aircraft to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.

The author recounts these adventures in episodic chapters that feature his ever-shifting cast of fellow investigators, supervisors and villains. The stories are interesting enough, and Knox gives us a good look at the day-to-day grind of doing surveillance and paper chases. The crimes and investigations are just different enough to keep the chapters from fading into one another, an always-present hazard in these kinds of books. When I bought this book, I didn't quite catch the fact that Knox had been out of investigations for nearly thirty years, so I was surprised by how quaint some of the crimes and situations seemed. This isn't really a problem -- just be aware that what you're getting is history rather than current affairs.

Knox isn't the born storyteller that, for instance, Chris Mathers of the similar Crime School: Money Laundering is. His writing is workmanlike but a little distant; while Mathers sounds like the guy at the end of the bar spinning yarns, Knox is more like the guest lecturer at a police academy reminiscing for the cadets. His re-created dialog is usually stiff and expository rather than atmospheric. Also, once the story leaves the ID, it becomes more diffuse and abstract, and much less interesting. Unless you're really into bureaucratic maneuvering and alphabet soup, there's only so much inside-baseball you'll need on how the author studied the problems of implementing European customs union.

The Investigator is a competent if not inspired memoir of a career spent chasing rogues to fill the Queen's purse. Non-stop action it ain't; think of it as watching Endeavour rather than MI-5/Spooks and you'll get it about right. If you enjoy British detective stories set in the 1960s or '70s, or if the phrase "true import/export crime" stirs your heart, this may be the book for you.
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Reading Progress

December 6, 2016 – Shelved
January 24, 2017 – Started Reading
January 29, 2017 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim Crocker Thanks for the tip on Crime School! Sounds good!

Lance Charnes Enjoy.

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