All you never knew about crime in the British Empire

EMPIRE OF CRIME: ORGANISED CRIME IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE
BY TIM NEWARK

Mainstream Publishing, £10.99
by Alex Deane

UNTIL the 20th century, the British were active participants in the opium trade throughout the Empire. But in 1908, well-intentioned reformers banned that trade (a seismic shift in our role in the East, opposed by Gladstone in debates, and a decision that cost the Treasury a fortune). In tracing the explosion in illicit trade that followed, historian Tim Newark brings an incredible and almost entirely neglected story to life. Often sordid and shocking, the acts done in pursuit of drug profits in and amongst British colonies punch holes in clichés and myths about the Empire.

Newark’s discoveries are more than quirks of history: this forgotten past is an important, deliberately concealed part of the narrative of Empire which deserves and demands analysis and discussion.

Had the lessons of the opium era been heeded, perhaps America’s disastrous Prohibition might have been avoided; and the narrative Newark has uncovered has important things to tell us in the debate we have about drugs today. Lavishly illustrated with hitherto unseen pictures from the author’s own extensive collection of historically important documents and photographs, I found myself constantly surprised by this book. I have passed the magnificent HMS Belfast in her berth in the Thames hundreds of times, but never knew before that she was raided in the early 1960s by policemen who uncovered Triad drugs from Hong Kong bound for distribution in the US, with delivery to be undertaken by Her Majesty’s Navy.

The Belfast’s senior officers were unaware of their criminal cargo. But elsewhere, one signal feature of this book is the recurrence of corruption the drug trade engendered – corruption which could often fairly be described as endemic. This made the policing of the drug trade all the more difficult. Tim Newark’s fantastic book is dedicated to colonial policemen (like George Orwell) who “put their lives on the line, doing the right thing.” By the closing chapters, one realises just how true that is.

Many recent volumes in modern historical publishing have prided themselves on a remarkably narrow scope – the life of a single minor character in history, examined in minute detail (often depending significantly on secondary sources). Newark is to be applauded for taking precisely the opposite approach. Vast swathes of national and international history are dealt with masterfully here, and chapters are driven by chunks – not titbits, but real, meaty chunks – of important new material discovered by diligent, old-fashioned primary resource research. It’s history as it’s meant to be: clear, unpretentious, exciting, authoritative and enthusiastic. This is unquestionably one of my books of the year.

A MONSTER CALLS
BY PATRICK NESS

Walker Books, £12.99
by Zoe Strimpel

Patrick Ness’s latest book for young adults is a fine, moving tale of sorrow and imagination, based on an idea by Carnegie Medal winner Siobhan Dowd, whose death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself. Shortlisted for Children’s Book Of The Year by both Red House and Galaxy, the story revolves around Conor O’Malley, who is visited by a monster as he endures the deterioration of his mother from cancer.

He’s been expecting a monster – the one from the nightmare he’s been having since his mother began chemo, and since his days at school began being spent in agonising alienation from the other kids.

This is not the same monster as the one in his dreams, though. It’s more of a wild, mythological creature; a force of nature, not simply a grotesquery. To be precise, it’s half scary monster – and, in keeping with its elemental spirit, half yew tree. The monster’s business seems to be essential truth, which it conveys as a challenge to Conor in the form of three confounding parables.

Conor, however, is not terrified of the monster because he knows something far worse is on its way: his mother’s death.

The book is a visual treat: its beautiful, somewhat terrifying drawings by Jim Kay are substantial companion to what is a heart-rending, but not over-hammed story of love, loss and childhood and fantasy.