The best books on female crooks

Caitlin Davies Author Of Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks
By Caitlin Davies

Who am I?

I first became fascinated by the portrayal of female criminals when I wrote a novel, The Ghost of Lily Painter, based on the first women to be executed at Holloway Prison in London in 1903. Holloway was the most infamous female jail in Europe and shortly before it closed down in 2016, I was given access to the prison archives. That led to Bad Girls, nominated for the Orwell Prize, and it also led to the discovery of a forgotten criminal aristocracy -  the women who were once so notorious they were Public Enemy No.1. 

I wrote...

Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks

By Caitlin Davies,

Book cover of Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks

What is my book about?

Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Ronnie Biggs, the Krays… All have become folk heroes, glamorised, and romanticised, even when they killed. But where are their female equivalents? Queens of the Underworld reveals the incredible true story of female crooks from the 17th century to the present - including street robbers, gang leaders, diamond thieves, hoisters, bandits, gold smugglers, burglars, getaway drivers, and bank robbers.

Every age has had its share of notorious female criminals, yet their stories have been lost. Queens of the Underworld puts them back in the history books.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Woman of the Underworld

Why did I love this book?

This is the book that started me off on Queens of the Underworld. It’s a thrilling, and sometimes disturbing, tale of Zoe Progl’s life of crime and her escape from Holloway Prison in 1960. When I learned that a tabloid journalist had ghostwritten the book, it made me want to find out the truth – and to see if I could discover other women who were happy to call themselves a queen of the underworld.

By Zoe Progl,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Woman of the Underworld as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants

Why did I love this book?

The recent rediscovery of the Forty Elephants, a British all-female crime syndicate, is mainly due to Brian McDonald’s book. Brian has direct family links to the gang, and the book is packed full of criminal characters and incidents. It also traces the roots of the Forty Elephants all the way back to Victorian times. 

By Brian McDonald,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Forty Elephants were unique in the annals of British crime. Emerging from the slums like fallen angels, these glamorous, lawless young women plundered fashion stores and jewel shops, picked their lovers from among London’s toughest gangsters and terrorised their rivals. Soon they were renowned, and feared, as the country’s first all-female crime syndicate.

They first rose to notoriety under Mary Carr, a beautiful artists’ model known as ‘Queen Thief’. But it was her successor, Alice Diamond, who led the Forties to their greatest infamy. Born the oldest of eight children in a workhouse hospital, she became the cleverest shoplifter…

Book cover of Gone Shopping: The Story of Shirley Pitts - Queen of Thieves

Why did I love this book?

Stories of professional thieving by women are very rare, especially first-hand accounts, and so Gone Shopping is an unusual book. It tells the tale of Shirley Pitts, Queen of the Shoplifters, who was a career criminal for 50 years. Professor Lorraine Gamman based the book on years of oral recordings and her description of Shirley Pitts could apply to many other female crooks. She was "a woman in a man’s world who succeeded. She was not a victim, she had agency, she wanted more."

By Lorraine Gamman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gone Shopping as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Voted one of The Guardian's top 10 best crime books of all time and one of the best true crime books ever written according to Stylist

Shirley Pitts, the eldest of six children was born upside down on 24 November 1934. Her 'career' began by thieving bread off doorsteps and coal from coal carts. Her father's bungled attempts at black marketeering and her dipsomaniac mother's inadequacies made Shirley resolve not only to be a first-class thief but also the best mother her six children could wish for.

Before she died Shirley told her story to Lorraine - the story of…

Five Days of Fog

By Anna Freeman,

Book cover of Five Days of Fog

Why did I love this book?

There aren’t many novels featuring professional female crooks, and Anna Freeman’s gripping story, set in London during the Great Smog of 1952, portrays a really believable all-female gang. Florrie Palmer is torn between her allegiance to the Cutters, led by her mother, and a desire to go straight. It’s a suspenseful, atmospheric read, and partly inspired by the real Forty Elephants.

By Anna Freeman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Five Days of Fog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Think Patrick Hamilton meets Peaky Blinders with a feminist twist' Metro

'Utterly transporting, read and lose yourself completely' Stylist

'A cinematic, rogueish, and utterly entertaining page-turner by the queen of feisty historical women. Goes down in one jewel-fisted slug' Abigail Tarttelin, author of DEAD GIRLS

'My mum always said, a fistful of rings is as good as a knuckleduster'

The Great Smog descends on London overnight; a leadership feud breaks out amongst a gang of female thieves who have terrorized the city for years; and Florrie, the girl who is set to inherit the bloody crown, falls in love with…

Book cover of Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World's Most Notorious Jewel Thief

Why did I love this book?

This is a rollicking read about the criminal adventures of Doris Payne, jewel thief extraordinaire who started her career in the United States in the 1950s. She saw herself as a crusader, and stealing diamonds as an act of retribution against a racist world. Doris continued her career until 2017, often updating and refining the methods once used by her Victorian forebears.

By Doris Payne, Zelda Lockhart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Diamond Doris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Doris Payne is an unapologetic badass." - Tessa Thompson, Actress

This is the sensational and compelling memoir of the world's most notorious jewel thief - a woman who defied society's prejudices and norms to carve her own path, and live out her dreams.

She stole diamonds from the people who underestimated her, she exploited the men who tried to domesticate her, and she consistently defied society's assumptions and prejudices to create a new life for herself. For fans of Catch Me If You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street and Molly's Game, this is the newest must-read crime autobiography.


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