Even if it seems faintly indecent to make such comparisons, British gangsters and crime bosses have usually paled into insignificance when compared to their transatlantic cousins. Even The Krays, whose legend grows ever more lurid with the passing of the years, were regarded as nickel and dime operators by American crime syndicates. Reg and Ron, by the way, were not even the nastiest gangsters in Britain. That dubious crown rests securely on the heads of the deeply dreadful Richardson brothers from ‘Sarf London.’ British gangsters have generally been like lightweight boxers in the ring with heavyweights, and nothing epitomises that gulf like the painful demise of Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, who perishes like a pygmy among giants.
Perhaps the world has shrunk, or maybe it is that organised crime, like politics, has gone global, but more recent British mobsters have become bigger and, because we can hardly say “better”, perhaps “more formidable” might be a better choice of words. No-one typifies this new breed of gang boss than John “Goldfinger” Palmer. His name is hardly on the tip of everyone’s tongues, but as this new book from Wensley Clarkson shows, Palmer’s misdeeds were epic and definitely world class.
Born in Warwickshire in 1950, Palmer found that school and conventional education offered him nothing. After working with his brother for a spell, he started dealing in gold and jewellery from a Bristol address, and first came to the attention of the police in a significant way with his involvement in the Brinks Mat gold bullion heist in 1983. Palmer’s part in the affair sounds scarcely credible, but it was to melt down the gold bars into more saleable items – in his back garden. It was this action which earned him his nickname, but his claim that he didn’t know where the gold had come from convinced the jury at his trial in 1987.
Meanwhile, Palmer had not been idle, at least in the sense of criminality. He had set up in the timeshare business, perpetrating what was later proved to be a massive scam. When he was eventually brought to justice, it was alleged that he had swindled 20,000 people out of a staggering £30,000,000. In 2001 he was sentenced to eight years in jail, but his ill-gotten gains were never recovered.
Despite his prodigious earnings, it seemed to go against Palmer’s grain to go straight, and he continued to dabble in fraudulent timeshare selling and money laundering. He had semi-retired to a Ponderosa style property in Essex (where else?) but it seems clear that no-one spends their life stealing on a grand scale without making enemies, and he was shot dead in a professional hit on 24th June, 2015.
This brief account is all in the public domain, but Wensley Clarkson can tell the full story because of his intensive research ‘on the inside’. His knowledge has not been gathered without cost, as he and his family have been subject to death threats by criminals terrified of being exposed. Killing Goldfinger is the definitive account of an extraordinary life – and death. It is published by Quercus, and is due to be published on 1st June.