London’s violent criminal underworld provides the backdrop to Jaime Raven’s latest novel, The Alibi. It follows on from the success of the author’s previous book, The Madam. In this guest post we learn why Jaime’s own past had such a bearing on the story – and on the creation of one of the book’s central characters, the ruthless gangster Danny Shapiro.
For years I’ve followed with interest the exploits of some of London’s most notorious gangsters. Stories about them have always fascinated me.
In fact it’s probably fair to say that those villains played a small part in my decision to write The Alibi.
The book took me back to my roots in south London where I spent my childhood. My family, who were street traders, were on first-name terms with some of the leading figures in the London underworld.
I was reminded of this and other things while researching the book and now I’d like to share a few of the memories with you.
Let’s start with Charlie and Eddie Richardson, who actually get a mention in The Alibi. They ran a crime syndicate in south London during the Sixties and were two of the capital’s most sadistic gangsters. They tortured their rivals by pulling out their teeth with pliers, slicing off their toes with bolt cutters and nailing their feet to the floor.
The Richardson’s were based in Camberwell, just a mile or so from where I lived in Peckham, and my father and uncles often drank with them in local pubs.
I was once introduced to Charlie Richardson, and I recall that he ruffled my hair and gave me money to buy some sweets. Of course back then I had no interest in what kind of person he was or what he did for a living.
An important member of the Richardson gang was a man named George Cornell, who was a close friend of my uncle Jim, one of my mum’s brothers.
But Cornell upset those other famous gangsters who operated across the Thames in east London – the Kray twins. Ronnie and Reggie Kray
were involved in everything from protection rackets to robberies.
One night at the infamous Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel Ronnie Kray shot and killed Cornell. I remember it being such a major talking point in my family but at the time I didn’t really understand why.
Another member of the Richardson gang was ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, who spent 42 years of his life in prison for various violent offences and was once dubbed ‘Britain’s most dangerous man.’
He wrote his memoirs before his death in 2014 and carried out ‘gangster’ tours of London on a bus.
I met the man in a pub when he was with his long-time girlfriend Marilyn Wisbey. It so happened that years earlier Marilyn had been a good friend of mine. She’s the daughter of the Great Train Robber Tommy Wisbey. We were part of the same group who partied together as teenagers.
Marilyn has published her own memoir, Gangster’s Moll, which gave a candid account of her life amongst London’s villains.
But when I first knew her she worked as a secretary to the editor of a glossy magazine. And it was thanks to her that my first short story got published. After writing it I asked her to give it to her boss and persuade him to include it in the magazine. She did and it was such a thrill to see my name in print.
I’ll be forever grateful to her because that was essentially the start of my writing career!
So finally let me return to The Alibi and one of its main characters – the gangster Danny Shapiro.
He’s loosely based on those men I’ve mentioned – the men whose criminal exploits had such a profound impact over many years on the lives of ordinary Londoners, including my own.
Danny is cold, heartless and ruthless – just like the Richardson brothers, the Krays and ‘Mad’ Frank.
But I’m also hoping that readers of The Alibi will find him interesting – and perhaps even a little charming. I won’t go so far as to say likeable – but who knows? Even the most despicable of villains can win you over on occasion – for instance when they ruffle your hair and give you money to buy some sweets…