THE GREAT NEW ZEALAND ROBBERY
SCOTT BAINBRIDGE ( ALLEN & UNWIN, $32.99)
Following his book on the Bassett Rd machinegun murders, Bainbridge turns to a far less-known crime: a classic safeblowing job in which the payroll was stolen from the Waterfront Industry Commission’s offices in downtown Auckland in 1956.
The sum of £19,785 (roughly $1 million today) was taken that night. Although it was obviously the work of many hands, only one man, Trevor Nash, was ever charged and convicted for the crime. Nash was sentenced but escaped jail and decamped to Australia, where he was re-arrested when a cop with a photographic memory passed him in the street and recognised him from a wanted poster.
Before security cameras, cellphones and electronic data retrieval, this sort of investigation was a hard slog. But finding a lot of cash to steal in one place was much easier. In the 1950s, when the robbery occurred, just about everyone received their pay in the form of banknotes and coins in brown paper envelopes. The opportunities for similar crimes today are few and far between; electronic banking and payment systems have given rise to much less explosive types of larceny.
Bainbridge peppers his book with colourful details – such as the fact New Zealand Herald cartoonist Gordon Minhinnick was drafted in to produce an early version of an identikit picture of a suspect. Then there’s Three Finger Pete, so called because blowing open safes isn’t the safest job in the world. Tough-guy lingo of the “jerked the nod” variety is also here in abundance. And there are cameos from such identities as John Banks, Hamish Keith and, of course, the eccentric, self-styled dark arts practitioner Anna Hoffman.
Not just an intriguing mystery, The Great New Zealand Robbery: The Extraordinary True Story of how Gangsters Pulled off our Most Audacious Heist gives the lie to the image of New Zealand in the 1950s as a dull and colourless place. If nothing else, it was home to an energetic underworld of raffish, not to mention violent, criminals.