Welcome to London, city of supergrasses, bent lawmen and celebrity gangsters. The time is - 1720. Frank McLynn reports
The Thieves' Opera

by Lucy Moore

Viking, pounds 20

The remarkable lives and deaths of Jonathan Wild, Thieftaker, and Jack Sheppard, House-Breaker - to quote Lucy Moore's subtitle - is one of the great stories from the annals of 18th-century crime. The older, more experienced man, who apparently befriended but betrayed the younger, has mythical resonances and appears in another context in the tale of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Small wonder that the Sheppard-Wild story has attracted so many, from Harrison Ainsworth's 1839 novel to the 1969 movie Where's Jack - directed by that underrated man James Clavell but sadly let down by the casting of Stanley Baker and Tommy Steele as Wild and Sheppard. For his part, Wild was the inspiration both for the great French police chief Eugene Vidocq and for Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty. Sheppard was the model for Hogarth's idle apprentice and for Dickens's Artful Dodger.

Sheppard, hanged at the age of 22 for housebreaking (such was England's "Bloody Code"), was primarily an escapologist of genius, the Houdini of his time. Before he was launched into eternity in November 1724, he had decamped four times from prison, including two breakouts from the "escape- proof" Newgate. Once he scaled a 20-foot wall carrying his mistress in his arms.

In his final gesture of defiance to Newgate, he released himself, as if by witchcraft, from a tangle of chains and fetters before proceeding to pick the locks of six iron doors, all bolted securely on the other side, using only the handcuffs he had originally worked free from. The only way he could be prevented from escaping a fifth time was by being loaded down on the floor of a dungeon by 300 pounds of iron. By the time of his execution, he was a folk-hero, the Robin Hood or Jesse James of his day.

Ironically, the man who had taken Sheppard under a paternal wing before shopping him did not long survive him. From 1712, Jonathan Wild was the Napoleon of London crime. A master of receiving and fencing stolen goods through a network of minions and middlemen, Wild made his early money as a putative private eye, returning stolen property to its owners for a hefty fee; the aspect of his work not revealed to his clients was that it was Wild's men who had stolen the "missing" items in the first place.

Since 18th-century England did not possess a professional police force, it relied for social control on a combination of capital punishment used in terrorem and financial rewards to informers and "supergrasses". Wild next conceived the idea of controlling the entire London underworld by breaking up all the organised gangs. He would bribe a gang member to inform on the others, then offer clemency to those informed on if they would incriminate others. Meanwhile, he was accepting huge rewards from the authorities for "thieftaking" - providing evidence that would send footpads, highwaymen, shoplifters and housebreakers to the gallows.

For a dozen years, it seemed Wild could do no wrong. Admired by the political elite for his cunning, and even consulted by a Privy Council fearful of a crime wave, he seemed to go to pieces after he delivered Sheppard to the authorities.

Public opinion and the elite itself turned against him at the very moment he seemed to lose his touch as a master puppeteer. Lucy Moore argues, plausibly, that the key event was a courtroom stabbing of Wild by a top villain ("Blueskin") he was testifying against. By this time, Wild was 41, already old in an age where average male mortality was around 45.

In an era without antibiotics, Wild took a long time to recover from the stabbing. It was during his convalescence that a disillusioned political elite moved decisively against him to secure the evidence that took him to the gallows at Tyburn, just six months after Sheppard's death.

This is a good story and Lucy Moore tells it well. The unkind critic might say that the book contains nothing new and relies heavily on Gerald Howson's classic 1970 biography. It could also be argued that the narrative is not tight enough and that the author rambles down too many byways to do with the role of 18th-century women, which is not really the subject she is supposed to be writing about.

Perhaps too it is curmudgeonly for a reviewer to wish that we could move away from the recent tendency for very young writers (Lucy Moore wrote this volume when she was 26) to rush into print before they have drunk deeply at the Pierian Spring, especially as there are not that many Orson Welles-style boy (or girl) historical geniuses extant. A better, more charitable, view is that this is an elegantly composed book by an author with an interesting mind and a deep commitment to her subject, and therefore that it represents an auspicious debut by a talented writer.