I’m delighted to take part in the blog tour for Queen of Thieves by Beezy Marsh, an exciting new gangland novel centering women in a typically male environment. Today I’m happy to share an extract with you. Look out for my review in the coming weeks!
Gangland was a man’s world – but the women knew different
Alice Diamond, the Queen of the Forty Thieves, rules over her gang of hoisters with a bejewelled fist. Nell is a slum girl from Waterloo, hiding a secret pregnancy and facing a desperately uncertain future.
Sensing an opportunity to exploit Nell’s vulnerabilities, Alice takes her under her wing and, before long, Nell is experiencing the secret world of hoisting, with all the dangers – and glamorous trappings – that comes with this underworld existence.
Alice has a longstanding feud with Billy Sullivan’s all-male gang in Soho, and thinks Nell could be a useful weapon in her vendetta. But Nell has a secret agenda of her own, and is not to be underestimated. And the more she is exploited by both Alice and Billy, the more her hunger for revenge grows. As she embraces the seedy underbelly of London, will she prevail in carving out her own path to power and riches…
…and crown herself the Queen of Thieves?
From Sunday Times bestselling author Beezy Marsh comes a thrilling new crime saga series, perfect for fans of Sam Michaels, Martina Cole and Jessie Keane.
London, June 1953
The sleek sable wrap feels so sumptuous between my fingers, I simply can’t resist it.
The fur is heavenly and soft; it’s exactly what I’m looking for. The whole street is going to be dolled up to the nines for the Coronation Party and I don’t want to disappoint because I’m royalty too; Queen of my manor, that is.
The minute the shop assistant’s back is turned, I snatch it from the rail and begin to roll it, quickly, into a tight, furry bundle.
I yank open the baggy waistband of my skirt and shove the wrap down the leg of my knickers. They are voluminous, real passion killers, with elastic at each knee, designed with one purpose in mind: going shopping.
Clouting, we call it, and I’m the best in the West End of London, stepping away from that clothes rail as if I haven’t a care in the world.
It hasn’t always been this easy; I’ve had my fair share of close shaves, especially in the early days, when I was learning my craft. Even now, the thrill of stealing mingles with a fear of being tumbled by the shop staff, which makes my hands clammy.
Being a thief wasn’t the career I had in mind when I was growing up but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you never know the way your life is going to turn out.
By the time I left school, I’d never even pinched so much as a sherbet lemon from the pick ’n’ mix at Woolworths.
All that changed after we won the war.
Victory tasted sweet but as I soon found out, it couldn’t stop the hunger pangs. Beating Hitler was one thing, but Britain was broke.
Rationing got worse and before you knew it, most folks were taking a bit of crooked, just to make life more bearable. It was all well and good for politicians to tell us not to grumble but they never went short, did they?
Wherever you looked there were bomb craters and piles of rubble. Weeds and wildflowers sprung up among the ruins, and excited kids claimed bombsites as their playgrounds, no matter how many times their mums told them not to. Life went on but there was little or no money to rebuild.
In London, battered by war but bursting with people hungry for some fun and what little luxuries they could afford, the black-marketeers and their bosses saw a golden opportunity.
After all, gangland was a man’s world.
That’s what they thought.
But us women, well, we knew different.
This is our story.
Waterloo, London, June 1946
When we won the war, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I was sad to see the back of the blackout because, to be honest, losing it was bad for business.
Night in the city was paradise for me and my girls. We made good use of the cloak of darkness to shift the stuff we’d brought home from the shops during the day. Now the gas-lamps were shedding light on things I wanted to keep hidden and that made life more difficult.
We’d got used to running the gauntlet of an air raid warden or two in the Blitz and when the siren went, you’d get some funny looks scurrying off to the Underground with bags stuffed full of finery, with a mink stole slung about your shoulders. But I’d be damned if I was going to let a German bomb deprive me of the spoils of a hard day’s work.
But with the blackout gone, there was more risk of being tumbled.
Round our way, most folks have always known better than to ask too many questions, no matter what they saw coming and going from my flat. They’re happy enough to pay for a bit of stuff on the side when they need it, especially if it means they don’t have to keep slapping gravy browning on their legs, because I’ve got them some nice new nylons.
And if anyone feels compelled to talk to the law about me, well, let’s just say they’ll soon realise that my jewels aren’t just for show. Diamonds are hard, and they can come in handy as a knuckleduster when you have enough of them. I wear one on every finger. Alice Diamond by name and diamond by nature, as I like to say.
You can call me a thief, but I prefer to say I’m a hoister. I liberate clothes from shop-rails and coat hangers and find them a good home. Perhaps I’ll give a working-class girl a chance to shine in a dress that she could never dream of affording, never in a month of Sundays. However, after a particularly busy Monday spent in the West End of London, I can make all her dreams come true, for a fair price, given the risks I’m taking.
Shoplifting with my gang, The Forty Thieves, is a proper career, with skills honed over years; a tradition that’s passed down by word of mouth, from one generation to the next. I get teary-eyed when I think of it really, because we can trace our heritage all the way back to the days of good old Queen Victoria herself.
I bet she could have stashed quite a few furs in her bloomers, given the size of her Majesty. I could have made good use of those when I was out shopping.
No offence, Ma’am.
It’s a year to the day since the war ended and everyone’s having another knees-up for the Victory Parade but I ain’t exactly in the mood for a party.
Everything but the air we breathe is still on coupons. Make do and mend, Mrs Sew-and-Sew, clothing on the ration; forgive me for saying, but those things are for mugs who want to wear moth-eaten jumpers and go around with holes in their stockings. And don’t get me started on the utility dresses they’ve still got in the shops. I wouldn’t be seen dead in them. What kind of victory is that?
It’s a matter of pride that no matter how hard-up I am – and believe me, there have been times I’ve been down to my last brass farthing – I’ve still kept up appearances, just like the quality over the water in Mayfair. The posh folk might say we are all in it together, but they’re not going without like we are. They ain’t fooling me, not for a minute.
I can honestly say, everything about me, every stitch I’ve got on, is crooked. But I’ve worked hard for it, just the same; harder than quite a few blokes I could mention, who spend their wages down the pub and leave the missus short for the housekeeping. Talk about doing an honest day’s work! And what with the prices of things in the shops these days, it’s hard to say who’s robbing who when you pay for things at the till. Not that I’ve done that very often, but at least I’m truthful about it.
And don’t go thinking I’ve lost touch with my roots, even if I am dolled up in my finery. Some of my best contacts are people you wouldn’t bat an eyelid over if you met them in the street.
The flower seller at Waterloo station looks like nothing more than an old drunk but she’s sharp as a tack. She’s called Lumps and Bumps because she’s always falling down and hurting herself when she’s been on the sauce but she’s my eyes and ears in that neck of the woods. Old Lumps has the alarming habit of warming the cheeks of her arse by the fire in the local boozer and she doesn’t wear knickers either, so that sight is not for the faint hearted. Her skirts haven’t been washed since the General Strike, I’d wager. Her teeth are like moss-covered tombstones and her breath reeks, but I always listen closely because her tip-offs are pure gold.
Last week, she heard that a couple of girls from Waterloo had got a little ruse going where they were knocking off some rolls of silk from the cloth factory by winding it around themselves and waddling out of work like a pair of Egyptian mummies. They made a pretty penny, but they forgot to pay me my dues, so I’m in the neighbourhood to see what I can find out about them, before I plan my surprise visit. Anything crooked on this side of the water, on my manor, goes through me and that’s that.
I just need to remind them who’s the Queen of Thieves round these parts and then we can all be friends. I’ve brought my silver-topped cane to make that point and Molly, my second-in- command, has her hatpin, just in case. She’s quite handy with it when she needs to be.
Meanwhile, there’s time a for a quick drink their local, The Feathers, just in case they happen to be there. I’ve a packet of stockings to drop off for the landlord’s daughter, and he owes me for those.
It ain’t my usual neck of the woods, I’m from round the Elephant and Castle, but I like to keep an eye on things, just to let people know I survived the Blitz, in case they were wondering where I’d got to.
I’m sure they’ll all be pleased as Punch to see me.
The row of two-up, two-downs which nestle by the River Thames behind Waterloo Station has quite a reputation but it don’t scare me or my girls. The same can’t be said of the local policemen – cozzers we call them – who will only walk down the streets round there in pairs.
Some tatty bits of Union Jack bunting have been strung between the lampposts and kids are out having fun watching a dog and a rat having a scrap on the cobbles. Some of the older ones are running a book on it. Makes a change from the bare knuckle fights they have on a Sunday at the top of the street; and that’s including the women, who like to settle scores with fists.
There’s quite a gang of us as we walk into the pub, and heads turn. A banner declaring ‘GOD SAVE THE KING!’, last pressed into service a year ago, on VE Day, has once again been proudly displayed above the bar.
An accordion player in the corner squeezes out a few notes of Roll Out The Barrel, to liven things up a little. A few old blokes, nursing their pints and picking their teeth for want of anything better to do, struggle gamely to sing along, and some wisecrack jokes that it sounds as if a cat is being strangled down the back alley, which raises a laugh.
My girls are dressed like film stars, with hair like spun silk gleaming beneath hats of the finest felt, in colours and styles you’d only seen in magazines; not even in shop windows, not since before the war. There’s a dainty blue pillbox with a veil, a derby hat in lime green, a bright beret in zesty orange and the finest of all, my red fedora with enough plumage to make a peacock proud.
Our clothes are nothing like the drab, worn, shapeless utility wear that stalk the streets of Waterloo, on the ration.
Our jackets have nipped in waists and there’s material, extra material, for frills and tucks on the dresses. My girls’ legs aren’t stained with gravy browning either. They wear stockings, silk stockings, and they’re all laughing and joking with each other because the world they come from doesn’t involve making do and mending.
A hush falls over the room, right into the darkest corners, stained yellow by years of tobacco smoke. I could swear the peeling wallpaper wilts a little more at the sight of us.
Men stare at the floor and shuffle their feet, suddenly taking great interest in their bootlaces or the sawdust and fag ends under the tables.
‘It’s quiet as the grave in ’ere,’ I joke to the barman, with a throaty laugh. ‘Someone died, have they? Where’s the party?’
Right on cue, the accordion player starts up again and half the pub starts singing for dear life, as if to please me. Men tighten their ties and flick imaginary dust from their trousers as they make their way over to buy my girls a drink or ask them to dance, or both.
I turn my back on the party and murmur something to the barman, handing over a small package. He nods and pulls a wodge of cash out from under the counter and hands it over. I flick through it briefly before stuffing it into my carpet bag.
Things are livening up a bit now and I tap my silver-topped cane in time to the music, my row of diamond rings twinkling on my right hand.
The barman pours a whiskey and pushes it towards me: ‘It’s on the house.’
As I raise it to my lips, that’s when I spot her, sitting at the end of the bar, looking lost…
Beezy Marsh is a top ten Sunday Times bestselling author, who has also held the coveted No.1 slot in Canada for three months. She puts family and relationships at the heart of her writing. She is an award-winning journalist who has spent more than 20 years making the headlines in newspapers including The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times. Beezy is married with two sons, and lives in Oxfordshire.
Huge thanks to Orion Dash for having me on the tour! Make sure to visit the other stops as well!