NORTH SOHO 999
A True Story Of Gangs And Gun-Crime In 1940s London
By Paul Willetts
INTRODUCTION BY THE AUTHOR
The figure of the trigger-happy young gangster, wreaking blood-spattered havoc on Britain’s city streets, tends to be portrayed as a contemporary phenomenon. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, however, the country was stalked by a similar menace. Skim through any national newspapers of that era and you’ll see item after item about shootings, armed robberies and hijackings, many of them committed by ruthless young gangsters. Of the innumerable gun-crimes perpetrated between May 1945 and the end of that decade, none generated more intense press coverage than the murder at the heart of North Soho 999, a murder that came to be regarded as the climax of the post-war crimewave.
What could have been just another shooting attained extra significance through its intrinsic drama and through the subsequent police investigation which was replete with the twists and turns of a detective novel. Like the killing of the Merseyside toddler James Bulger forty-six years later, the crime also owed some of its notoriety to a single, haunting photograph, reproduced countless times in newspapers and magazines.
Though the murder in question is now largely forgotten, it ranks among the most significant British crimes of the twentieth-century. Besides sparking an investigation on an unprecedented scale, it inspired one of Britain’s most commercially successful movies, spawned the country’s first hit television cop show and brought together several of the most celebrated and brilliant crime-fighters of the era, men whose lives would be transformed by what happened.
I was researching an altogether different book when I first read a cursory account of the events depicted in North Soho 999. Over the next few months my interest in the subject gradually supplanted my interest in the book I’d planned to write. I found myself drawn to the story because it offered a corrective to popular misconceptions about late 1940s London, misconceptions fostered by the gentility of so many of the English movies of that period. I was equally intrigued by the way that the story foreshadows current concerns about escalating violence, youth crime, social collapse and the widespread availability of guns. Mind you, for all its surprising topicality, the story remains as evocative of its era as the crimes of Jack the Ripper are evocative of the teeming, fog-shrouded Victorian slums.
In constructing my book, I’ve plundered the voluminous police files devoted to the case. These contain detailed witness statements, photographs and even plans of the scene of the crime. I’ve gleaned valuable supplementary material by interviewing former Metropolitan Police officers who were serving at the time of the murder. I have, in addition, used a wide range of other sources, police files dovetailing with reportage, memoirs, newsreels, architects’ drawings and other documents culled from collections as diverse as the BT Group Archives and the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection. Extensive notes on the sources are included at the back of the book.
Sometimes North Soho 999 may read like a novel, but it remains a work of non-fiction. None of the dialogue is invented. This has, instead, been lifted from witness statements and published accounts of the crime, specified in the notes. The same is true of the thoughts ascribed to the participants in the story. Unlike the dialogue, these are not indicated by quotation-marks. In most cases they are nonetheless exact transcriptions. To suit the context in which they feature, the tense of several of them has been altered. For the same reason first-person sentences have occasionally been changed to the third-person and others have been paraphrased.
At certain points in the book, there are what may appear to be suspiciously detailed portraits of locations where the action takes place. Such descriptions – anything from the layout of a building to the view from a window – are the product of research, not creative embellishment. Of course I was often tempted to use my imagination to fill tantalising gaps in the available material. Had I done so, I knew that I’d have compromised the story and diminished its inherent power. No matter how scrupulous any description is, though, objectivity represents an elusive ideal. The writer can’t help but imprint his or her outlook, personality and interests on what’s being described. Still, I hope I’ve conveyed an accurate picture of this extraordinary story which, in contrast to most true-life stories, possesses the shapeliness and resonance of fiction.
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