The historical literature of political deviance is sparse. This unusual work, chronicling the history of Jonathan Wild, represents an effort to come to terms with one of the more amazing characters of English social history. Wild was both part of the policy system in eighteenth-century England, and also one of the most adroit criminals of the age. In the 1720s, London suffered the worst crime waves in its history. Civic corruption took place on a staggering scale. The government's answer was to pay a bounty for the capture of robbers, thus creating a class of professional informers.
Wild was applauded as the most efficient thief hunter and gang breaker in British society; but his own posse of thief catchers was basically a front behind which he was able to control the underground world, through a complex system of blackmail, perjury, and terror which the book details. All who opposed him were betrayed to the law, and in the struggle for power Wild sacrificed several hundred of his own people to the hangman. No one since his time, with the exception of Lavrenti Beria of the late Stalin era GPU so nearly succeeded in bringing the underworld under the control of one system of power.
At one level, this is a biography of the world's first supercriminal. At another, it is a sociology of criminal behavior and its political consequences. Howson sheds fresh light, not only on a figure who has become famous in literature, but more important, on the entire structure of gang life. The book is written as a terrifying and fascinating study of a historical epoch; it also offers a completely fresh picture of the birth of modern organized-crime families as part of modern organized political systems.