THE LAST JOB
The “Bad Grandpas” and the Hatton Garden Heist
By Dan Bilefsky
When I was a young reporter in Texas, a 50-something woman piloting a small plane made an emergency landing alongside a busy San Antonio highway, creating a bit of a furor. After the basic five W’s had been covered in a roadside news conference, I asked about her family situation. I can’t recall the headline The San Antonio Light ran the next day, but I know it used some variation of grandmother, echoing my lede. A peer castigated me. “You’re trafficking in stereotypes. What does her being a grandmother have to do with landing a plane safely?”
Our culture’s “affectionate” ageism is still going strong, especially when it comes to crime. Good lord, we’ve had two versions of “Going in Style,” and Danny Ocean — George Clooney edition — always has a senior citizen in the mix whether he’s working with 10, 11 or 12 confederates.
So in 2015, when nine men were arrested after what would be called the largest burglary in Britain’s history, it was probably inevitable that the British tabloids dubbed them “Bad Grandpas” and “Diamond Wheezers.” Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper The Sun, which coined the “wheezers” headline, went on to note that the combined ages of the nine suspects was 533.
Let’s see, 533 divided by 9 — that makes the suspects’ average age just shy of 60, which happens to be the birthday I celebrated a few weeks before reading “The Last Job: The ‘Bad Grandpas’ and the Hatton Garden Heist.” I readily cop to being a grumpy old woman, albeit one with a longstanding affection for caper stories. A good heist tale is a good heist tale; a dull one can’t be rescued by the fact that the thieves are pensioners. Yes, the Hatton Garden job was big and brazen in execution, undone by the gang’s almost comical hubris. But is it a great story, with the zeitgeist kick of, say, the 2009 Bling Ring?
Dan Bilefsky, a New York Times correspondent who arrived in London about the time Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd. was burglarized, is a brisk, enthusiastic storyteller. And the crime was undeniably a sensational one that seized the public’s imagination well before anything was known about the suspects. The size of the haul alone made it a big deal: The thieves, working over the long Easter weekend, jimmied open 73 safe deposit boxes, taking away cash, gold and jewels valued at $20 million at the time.
Bilefsky draws on interviews, court testimony and transcripts from the Metropolitan Police to put together a meticulously researched procedural. But the early sections of the book are weakened by the fact that the mastermind, Brian Reader — 76 at the time of the burglary — provided no additional information to what was already in the public record. Bilefsky is left to make deductions about Reader’s motivations, ranging from “a fearlessness borne of age” to “a bravado perhaps conditioned by age.” My hot take? Reader was a thief. Thieves steal.
However, the men’s ages do matter when the case goes to court. The prosecutor Philip Evans — vividly rendered here; the book is at its best when focused on the good guys — realizes he has to combat the narrative that these are harmless old men who swindled some vague, faceless banking entity. Bilefsky reminds us that the plundered safe deposit boxes belonged to individuals — “Holocaust survivors; young entrepreneurs; retirees; immigrants … who had arrived penniless to Britain in the 1960s after fleeing strife or civil war.” Ultimately Hatton Garden Safe Deposit was forced into liquidation; much of the loot has never been recovered.
“People don’t seem to look at it as a robbery,” Hatton Garden’s new owner said in a 2016 newspaper interview. “Here they say, ‘O.K., they were just some old men chancing their luck.’ It’s strange, but there you go. I can’t explain it, but I’m no psychiatrist.”
Bilefsky doesn’t try to explain it, either, and maybe it’s not fair to wish that he had tried. Meanwhile, the third film adaptation inspired by the heist — yes, third — was released in March. One review asserted most of the criminals were in their 60s and 70s. Nope, only three of the nine, but I guess that’s not as, well, sexy.