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.

The books I picked & why

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Woman of the Underworld

By Zoe Progl,

Book cover of Woman of the Underworld

Why 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.


Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants

By Brian McDonald,

Book cover of Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants

Why 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. 


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

By Lorraine Gamman,

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

Why 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."


Five Days of Fog

By Anna Freeman,

Book cover of Five Days of Fog

Why 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.


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

By Doris Payne, Zelda Lockhart,

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

Why 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.


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