Too many "family-of" accounts of English gangster life are as dodgy as the deals they luridly describe. Dead Men's Wages
, Lilian Pizzichini's superb reconstruction of her shady grandfather Charlie Taylor's niche in the London criminal underworld, stands apart as a restorative pick through the family rubble. On the day that she was born in 1965, Miss World had just left her grandfather for Bob Hope. Such decadence, however, was illusory: behind the extravagance lay an existence rooted in humble beginnings only ameliorated by fraud, gambling and deceit. Indeed, the book's title refers to a centuries-old scam perpetuated by Charlie, who claimed the earnings of non-existent workers, using the National Insurance numbers of dead soldiers from the Second World War. This bamboozling was also the premise of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls
, and while it's unlikely Charlie found much recourse to literature, his granddaughter writes with the cold anger and novelistic eloquence of the emotionally dispossessed.
Her account scratches the palimpsest of London history, recalling the Fascist rallies of the 1930s, the rise of hoodlums like Billy Hill and the Krays, the emergence of drug commerce, and the increasing concomitance of the criminal, show business and patriarchal classes. Finally arrested on charges of conspiracy to forge gold coins, Charlie, now plain old Alfred, his birth name, was acquitted of all charges posthumously, as he had expired on the platform at Waterloo Station. Integral also to Pizzichini's assimilated narrative is the rise and sprawl of the London suburbs, particularly to the north west of the capital, in a complementary vein to Edward Platt's Leadville, the expansion of which provided the rich pickings for Charlie and his ilk could make through the building industry. There are few pleasant folk in Pizzichini's haunted tale, yet her familial grave-robbing deglamorises and debunks with hard-fought zeal, rendering inherited mythologies in stark relief. Amoral conman to the last, Charlie instructed his son to "knock the undertakers" for his funeral. Pizzichini's epitaph, though, is damning, and final: "You see, Charlie, ultimately, no-one cared enough. We were tired of your depravity". --David Vincent
Read[s] like a novel, with its bent coppers, pill-popping gangsters and dissolute aristocrats... intoxicating. -- Sunday Times 6 April 2003