Book Review: The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet

by Duncan Hamilton

Having had my fill recently of stories about the serial killers, lone gunmen and terrorists, I decided what I really wanted was a story of genteel crime in the highest echelons of Victorian society. I found just what I was looking for in the story of the ‘immaculately dapper and suave’ gentleman jewel thief, Harry Thomas Sands, in The Unreliable Life of Harry the Valet by Duncan Hamilton.

Price: £14.99
Publisher: Century
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-1846058134
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Initially introducing Harry as a Raffles type character, sweeping through Victorian high society, kissing the rings off the fingers of Duchesses and conning gentlemen out of their prized possessions, we are soon swept into a story that is much more complex than it initially appears.

Harry, for a start, is an enigma; what we know about him is predominantly the result of six autobiographical articles that he wrote in the 1920s for the The Weekly News. Advertised as the true story of this master thief, it is notable that it provides the only real evidence piecing together Harry’s life. He talks about his origins as a humble son of a picture framer, who steals from the family cash register to finance an increasing interest in the world of gambling and horse racing. Followed by his apprenticeship with a Fagin type character and his foray into the world of pick-pocketing, we are then led to his greatest obsession; the theft of jewels.

Harry finds himself hanging around at railway stations, stealing jewel cases from under the noses of porters and lady’s maids. He is remarkably successful and his spoils are used to fund a lavish lifestyle of gambling, drinking and having a jolly good time.
Like the best stories, the turning point in Harry’s life is when he meets with what will, ultimately be his downfall; falling in love. His love for an actress will lead to some of the most daring thefts he has ever undertaken and it will lead him to stand in the dock for one of the most famous jewellery thefts of the Victorian period.

What starts off at a somewhat slow pace becomes a very interesting story full of colourful characters. From the Police officers who capture him (including an early triumph for Walter Dew, seeking the acclaim and notoriety that he would later gain for the capture of Dr Crippen) to the Duchess of Sutherland, the not-so-very-innocent victim of the ultimate jewel theft, all the people that Harry encounters are not quite on the side of the angels and as a result you feel some sympathy for the book’s subject, despite his dubious morals. Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the story is that the great love of Harry’s life is not returned and the object of his affection was unworthy of his efforts, giving the tale a tragic edge.

As a personal story in itself, Harry’s life is fascinating. There are also some really interesting themes to this book that require deeper reflection; notably, the changes in society from the Victorian into the Edwardian period, and the nature of self presentation in the media.
If I said more, I would spoil it. This is not a book for academics; instead, it is something to cosy up with on a night, to read a story that is at moments a love story, a crime thriller, and a fable about legend versus reality.

By guest reviewer Martha Stoneham.