OK, I must confess I picked up the book based on the cover. I barely had a look at the author, my eyes were drawn on the very Dexter-like blood splatters, the picture of a mansion in an old-timey frame and seeing the word Butler… made me think of all the crime novels I read where the conclusion was easy:
The butler did it.
Now, this book is not a confession of a butler talking about his life in service in the same way that Kazuo Ishiguro talked in The remains of the day. This is more of a memoir from prison, very much similar to Jeffrey Archer’s Cat O’Nine Tales.
This is the biography / memoir of Roy Archibald Hall, written in first person, talking about his wonderful life as a thief. And I say wonderful as he describes it in great detail and also serves as a moralizing story of why you should try to keep on the straight and narrow.
It’s a story of how he grew up in the 1930’s, how he moved about with his family, how he survived during the second world war and how he started off from a petty thief to one of the most prolific and successful thieves of the 17’s. He performed a lot of cons – reminding me of Sidney Sheldon’s If tomorrow comes – stealing jewlery, replacing stones and rings, fencing them off in unscrupulous shops for a fraction of the price.
He is aware of what went wrong and what caused it – having spent almost two decades in different prisons for different heists.
Hall – who was bisexual – became a familiar figure in the capital’s glitzy, underground gay scene. He had more sex (accounting to his own self) than a prolific gigolo on call. I started counting the times he had sex with men and he had sex with women and I lost count by the middle of the book. He seems indiscriminate in his tastes but he does fall in love with one of each (David B. in prison and Anne H. outside). I think David was his soul mate as he seems to be thinking about him more – and be more passionate in his affections.
Due to his lucrative criminal career, he led an extravagant lifestyle, clubbing, pubbing and flying all over the world.
Eventually the law caught up with him and he was arrested (multiple times). Each time he was released he got more determined not to end up in jail any more. But still the easy money, the ways of the predator, the hunt for a good mark – these were not things he could easily forget. He would return to robbery but every time, he would get a little bit better at it.
He found out that modifying his references he could get employed as a butler and have easy access to the household treasures. He details his life working as the head of the household staff in different aristocratic families, how he dutifully serviced the mistress (and sometimes the daughter and son too), how he got fired for pleasuring a maid, how he waited until he changed jobs to rob his previous employer.
I was shocked to see that only one of his previous employers did a background check on him through authorized means (his insurance agency checked for new staff) and the rest relied on word of mouth to keep a person in service.
Upon release from prison in 1975, he returned to Scotland and found employment with Lady Margaret Hudson, working as a butler at Kirleton House. David Wright, a former lover from his time in jail (which he names scum and low-life but good in bed), arrived on the scene and was hired as a gamekeeper. David wanted to rob the couple but Hall wanted to wait until they were no longer employed there to do it. David stole a diamond ring and hid it in a sock and Hall found out and they argued. David left in a fury and when he came back (drunk and loaded), he tried to kill him.
Seeing him as a liability, Hall kills him when hunting the following days and hides his body in the moors, covering him with different plants to make his grave look like the gardens around it.
Once he committed his first murder, he crossed a threshold he was not aware existed and all of a sudden, the people around him had less value and murder was an option to get rid of nuisances. He even killed his half-brother when he was back in the neighbourhood to prevent him from raising eyebrows and asking unwanted questions.
His new buddy in crime, Michael Kitto, was picked to help rob and they became accomplices. His half brother, his new employers, a third accomplice who was showing off the victims’ furs in the town, anything that would stop them was eliminated. He talks about the murders quite dispassionately, like something that happened and had to happen and not like he ended lives.
Hall was lacking empathy – a basic human emotion. And even though he prided himself when he was younger that his crimes never hurt anyone, his slip into violent crime and murdering his kin show that a degenerate life outside the law can eat up at a person until there is no humanity left. His downfall was also associating himself with lesser criminals, who, lacking the experience and the brains, had him involved with murder and had him commit murder on purpose.
Considering the nature of his crimes it was obvious that Hall would never be released. Before he died, however, he decided to set the record straight and write his memoirs. This honest, harrowing and chilling book is the result.
‘No one visits me. My few close friends still look out for me in my old age, but I have no part to play in the 21st century. Only death can release me now, and I wait for it as patiently as I can.’
Rating: 3/5. It was quite funny in parts (I’m live in the UK and when he said that he wanted to move to Wales but after being there for a while, he changed his mind, I had to chuckle as he’s right. There’s nothing in Wales. Beautiful but you won’t find rich people to rob). The writing style is a bit laconic but it gets the point across. His sexual exploits would make another great book for the adult readers. (I kept wondering how he did not get any sexually transmitted diseases, by being with so many people).
Would recommend – especially if you like memoirs & crime stories.