THE GREAT NEW ZEALAND ROB­BERY

SCOTT BAIN­BRIDGE ( ALLEN & UNWIN, $32.99)

North & South - - Review -

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.

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