Molly Caldwell Crosby on a Little Gem of History

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A necklace composed of dozens of pearls and one giant pearl. Estimated value in today's currency: a whopping $18 million. A gentleman thief, Joseph Grizzard ("The King of Fences"), who heads a gang of thieves in post-Edwardian London. And the methodically minded Alfred Ward, a Scotland Yard detective, one of the agency's first.

That is the necklace in question and those are the two opposing main characters in Memphian Molly Caldwell Crosby's latest book, The Great Pearl Heist: London's Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard's Hunt for the World's Most Valuable Necklace (Berkley Books).

It follows on Crosby's history of the yellow fever epidemic (The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History) and her study of encephalitis (Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic That Remains One of Medicine's Greatest Mysteries).

Crosby's latest book is out in time for the holidays. And as she said in a recent phone interview, she could use the break, because the research she's done here — newspaper accounts, police statements, trial transcripts, and memoirs in addition to realty listings, weather reports, and criminal lingo (screwsman, crusher, putter-up, etc.) — is considerable. But the results make for an entertaining step-by-step study of life in London before World War I and a skillful reconstruction of a, for its time, hugely publicized crime that sent the media and the public into a frenzy.

Spoiler alert: The 61 lesser pearls in the necklace were eventually recovered and subsequently sold individually. That one giant pearl? It hasn't been seen since 1913 — unlike Crosby herself, who was easily available to answer a few questions.

Is it true to say you had a lot of fun writing "The Great Pearl Heist"? Because it sure reads like you did.
Mary Caldwell Crosby:
It was a lot of fun — and nice to get away from the sadder, more tragic stories of The American Plague and Asleep.

With The Great Pearl Heist all the elements were fascinating. I love the year 1913. It's a tipping point in history, a great year of contrasts during such a golden era. And the story's all true, and there's drama throughout. World War I changed so much, but this was like finding a little gem of history untouched by the war.

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You must have felt like a detective yourself reconstructing the story.
It's one of the things I love about writing history: putting the pieces together from a wide variety of sources. If there was a challenge to this story, it was a good challenge, because there's no account of how the heist actually took place. The thieves never told exactly how they did it. So I went to Scotland Yard testimony, to people who came forward, and to the memoirs of thieves who'd worked with the thieves described in the book. When it comes to the facts, I'm pretty much a purist.

I made two trips to England to research materials and locations, but it's hard for me to get away with two young daughters. I did take my 10-year-old with me on one trip, though, so she could see how research works, to walk the same streets as the characters in the book.

Did the skills you showed in your two previous books serve you well here?
I try to approach the texture, the details of the story, like a fiction writer — whether it's Memphis in 1878 during the yellow fever epidemic or London in 1913 — to put the reader in that place and time.

With American Plague and Asleep, the challenge was the amount of material on the characters. But these aren't historically significant people in The Great Pearl Heist. I read what other people's impressions of them were. The head thief Grizzard, for example, had a commanding presence ... redoubtable. He was married, wealthy, had a son, and he was the kind of thief who's loyal to his gang members. He'd find them honest work if they wanted it. He'd pay for their defense. He supported their families when they were put away.

What's this about a possible film made of "The Great Pearl Heist"?
The rights haven't been sold, but it's been picked up by the book agent at the Creative Artists Agency. That agent's in the process of shopping it around.

Do you have a dream director and cast in mind?
I'm a huge "Masterpiece Theatre" fan, so that would be my dream. I'm also a fan of Downtown Abbey, a series originally set in 1913. As for the actors, anyone from general casting at the BBC would be great!

Do you know what your next book will be?
I haven't started thinking about it. I found this story while still researching Asleep, and I went straight from finishing that book to writing this one. I'd really enjoy another story in this same time period, but I'm ready for a break — at least until after the holidays.

Molly Caldwell Crosby will be discussing and signing The Great Pearl Heist at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Tuesday, December 4th, at 6 p.m. For more on the author, visit her website at mollycrosby.com.

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