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The Investigator: Drugs, Guns, Gems and Porn: Inside the Secretive World of Customs Investigation Paperback – 22 Sep 2016
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About the Author
Michael Knox was born in Newcastle and joined H.M. Customs and Excise after National Service in the British Army. He served fifteen years as an investigator and was later awarded the CBE, partly for his role in the abolition of internal frontiers to create the Single European Market.
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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 the European customs union in the UK.
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 and '70s, or if the phrase "true import/export crime" stirs your heart, this may be the book for you.
The book's considerable period charm derives from these casework tales, which speak of a golden age when watches, porn and import Purchase Tax evasion were still of key interest. In those days, investigators were a small, swashbuckling band fingering the collars of proper British villains; desk-bound intel nerds were as yet unborn; and it clearly did not seem odd to locate the Northern investigation office in the first English town to be cut off by winter snows. Mike Knox has an impressive recollection of the facts of his old cases and the resulting seizures, custodial sentences and fines (a stash of old notebooks in the attic?). Even more impressive is the dialogue in the stories of derring-do. I can't believe his recall is verbatim, but Mike has a good ear and it's very realistic.
Like many autobiographers and political memorialists, Mike tends not to criticise living colleagues. This is understandable and generous, but need it extend to villains? I detect a certain sympathy for some of the rogues, but what really sticks in the craw is the positive admiration for R. Branson. My cynicism may derive from too many years travelling to and from London inhaling the gizzening smell from Virgin's Pendolino toilets, but to me the man does not smell of roses.
After his transfer to a general HQ policy Division Mike, unlike some ID transplants, flourished and learned the skills of rigorous analysis and clear writing. He brought to the job his ID competences of hyper-confidence, charm and determination to surmount irritating obstacles. It is no surprise then to read his account of how he singlehandedly delivered the Single Market by 1993, albeit with John Major's strong support from the sidelines. His account finesses a few little local difficulties and nit-picking blue-bloods might find the odd error or omission, but no-one would deny that Mike slaved and triumphed as Mr Europe. His reference to the Hotel Gascogne in Brussels, home base for British civil servants on fixed subsistence rates, recalls some happy days, but Mike mysteriously omits both the hotel's central role in cementing a new relationship, and also his own crucial importance to colleagues' hygiene. For mere mortals, the only way to get the key to the Gascogne's sole bathroom and the loan of a used bar of soap was to address the proprietor with the magic words 'Je suis un ami de Monsieur Knox'.
After Mike's years on the Brussels circuit, his pre-retirement fling as Mr International was well deserved, with its WCO conferences, bilateral lobbying over dinners and the palm-fringed beaches of CCLEC countries. The current tenants of 100 Parliament St will desperately need someone as creative and conscientious if the UK is now to reinstate its frontiers after the Brexit débacle.