Review: EMPIRES OF CRIME by Tim Newark, published by Pen And Sword History

ISBN:  1526713047

I have to admit, I picked this up with a degree of trepidation.

There are so many books published which blame the British Empire for everything from famine, slavery, warfare and xenophobia, that I am forced to select my reading with care, just to avoid damage to my blood pressure. I need not have worried with this.

This is a superb, balanced book, which takes a number of examples of conspiracy, incompetence, and venality to show how the modern drug trade really kicked off. Was the Empire responsible? At the outset, you betcha. It was, after all, the Opium Wars which kicked off mass demand for drugs, and it was merchants and adventurers who profited from the misery of their Chinese victims. But that was then. This book is about the attempts by many Imperialists to stop the flow of drugs and save people from becoming addicts. And yes, the people they were trying to help were Chinese, Indians and others.

The book begins with Gladstone, who early on in his career railed against the vile trade in drugs, only later to argue against prohibition because, by its very nature, prohibition must increase the profits  and therefore the incentive for criminals prepared to take risks. In this, he was proved right. The bootleggers in the US demonstrated it nicely. From there the book moves on to consider the men who did their best to find and punish the criminal gangs making huge profits: men such as Lt.Col. Roos-Keppel, W.E. Fairbairn of the Shanghai Municipal Police, Governor Sir Cecil Clementi of Hong Kong – who sought to take over the market in drugs in order to destroy the Triad smugglers – Thomas Wentworth Russell of the Egyptian police, Arthur Young of the Malayan Police during the Malayan Emergency, all the way through to the discovery of drugs being smuggled aboard the H.M.S. Belfast in 1962!

But this is not dry, tedious history. Tim Newark has pulled together a fascinating story of Empires (plural), and their attempts to stop the smuggling of illicit items, whether weapons or drugs, and how they tried to curb the violence involved with such smuggling. The British Empire looms large because it was the largest empire. But he also looks at the French Empire and its failures, as well as the US’s attempts. 

Newark begins his narrative in the late 1890s, and connects each link in a chain of events that brings us to almost the present day. And there are many – to a modern eye – shocking aspects. Such as the medicinal drug companies in Europe, who were happily refining drugs and then selling them for profit to smugglers, knowing the criminals would take them to their markets in China and the Far East. It shows how, whenever a ban or prohibition is imposed on a market, that market will respond by increasing the value of the product and the profits of those willing to risk all. No matter whether it is booze in America boosting the Mafia’s coffers, or opium and heroin supporting Triad gangs in China and the Far East, it is the profit, not the product, which matters.

I have sadly been forced to read a lot of books of true crime over the years. I say sadly, because they are so often written very poorly, either because the author is attempting to achieve an academic style to make it more profound, or because they see their story as being as thrilling as any newspaper story and they want to emulate that approach. Of course that is difficult, and often counter-productive. A breathless approach in a 400 word article is bearable. Attempt the same in a 90,000 word book and any reader must fade with exhaustion after the first couple of chapters.

Then again there are some professional writers who have made a good income from the tittillation of violence. Stories of thugs, murderers and psychopaths will always have a ready readership. All too often the quality of the writing is enough to dissuade all but the most enthusiastic of crime addicts.

They won’t like this. This is a strong non-fiction story written superbly well, and which thrills like a modern mystery story. It’s brilliant history, and utterly compelling.

Not only highly recommended, I urge you to get a copy! It’s brilliant!

5 Responses to “Review: EMPIRES OF CRIME by Tim Newark, published by Pen And Sword History”
  1. Thanks for the review, it brighten a very wet Saturday morning in Torquay. I shall now go and acquire the book to add to my growing shelf of Michael Jeck’s books. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:


Leave a Reply to writerlywitterer Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: