Beezy Marsh and The Forty Thieves: A Topic She Found in Her “Blood”


Author Beezy Marsh has been researching and getting to know the all-female London gang, The Forty Thieves, for nearly ten years. Her most recent novel, Queen of Clubs (William Morrow, 2024) follows the exploits of gangland “Queen” Nell and her nemesis Alice Diamond into the 1950s.

Her first book, Queen of Thieves (William Morrow, 2023) takes places right after World War II; the third book Queen of Diamonds, which is scheduled for release in the UK this year and in the USA and Canada in early 2025, is a prequel set in 1920s London.

While the novels are inspired by Alice Diamond and The Forty Thieves, Marsh says her take is purely fictional, although historically accurate.

“In Queen of Clubs, we see the gang moving into running nightclubs in Soho, because London at that time was experiencing a nightclub boom. People had money to spend, and Soho was where they went to play after dark,” she said.

The Forty Thieves were notorious from the 1920s to the 1960s for shoplifting furs, silks and diamonds, but Marsh explains that they also wanted to carve a slice of the action in nightclubs.

“That was fraught with danger, because it went cheek-by-jowl with the underworld and the seamier side of life. From a plot perspective in Queen of Clubs, that tension provides a lot of the action!” she said.

Marsh sprinkles the slang of the era throughout the dialogue, rendering a powerful realism to the story.

“I try not to over-do it in the book but some words – cozzer ( policeman), hoist ( steal) and chiv (razor blade) are like the creed for The Forty Thieves,” Marsh said.

Marsh had an added advantage in recreating the dialogue: her family. Both of her parents’ families lived and worked in London throughout the 20th century.

“My nan used to work as barmaid around Soho and the theatres in the 1930s, so this was very much her world. She spoke some Cockney slang – it was a bit of a joke in our family, so I grew up hearing it,” she explained.

“She used to tell me stories about this gang of notorious women thieves who stuffed furs into their knickers and ran out of Selfridges, so I suppose that is where the fascination started.”

Marsh said that members of her mother’s side of the family were working in slum laundries and as labourers, plasterers, and London hansom cab drivers back in the 1800s.

“This was the working-class world of the Forty Thieves, so I suppose it’s in my blood,” she said.

As a biographer for a notorious gangland figure, who was related to one of the last “queens” from the 1950s and 60s, Marsh met some of the descendants of the original Forty Thieves gang. Through this connection, Marsh also had access to one of the queen’s prison letters, which helped her find the voice for her characters. Later she met and became friends with the woman’s daughter and granddaughter.

Having first-hand contact with people who also remembered Alice Diamond helped Marsh  bring authenticity to the characters.

“Listening to people and picking up on phrases was key. It always makes me smile when people try to ‘do’ Cockney in print because it’s so easy to get it wrong,” she said.

Marsh’s series on the Forty Thieves is indicative of a trend for crime fiction featuring female criminals. Marsh believes the fascination with female criminals is about transgression, crossing the boundaries set by society for the female sex.

“It’s also, perhaps, in the reading experience, enjoying that shock and sense of daring, or revulsion and fear. I find all criminals repulsive and fascinating, but female ones even more so,” she said.

The Forty Thieves were taken quite seriously by their male counterparts, who respected and sometimes feared the women.

“A few old gangsters I knew got misty-eyed remembering them,” she said.

It was also a great deal tougher to be a woman in that world. In addition to worrying about making a living and avoiding arrest, they often had children and families to take care of.

In Queen of Clubs, the main source of conflict is that Nell has a daughter she adores and whom she wants to keep safe from the criminal elements (including corrupt police) that surround them. The love she has for her child makes her willing to sacrifice her own freedom.

“This is a real reflection of how the women of The Forty Thieves lived. Some did have children and ended up separated from them when they got jailed and it was heartbreaking. Others were seen as ‘godmother’ figures in the community, offering help, a listening ear and kindness to other women.”

Marsh observes that there’s a duality with female gangsters in that they were fearsome but also motherly at times. But being a woman also meant getting harsher sentences for theft than men.

“This was possibly as a deterrent to other women but also possibly because they were women. The court records talk about them being ‘unrepentant’, ‘wicked’ and ‘determined’ (they were all these things),” she said.

Marsh’s background as a journalist gives her an edge when it comes to both researching and pacing.

“Years of writing for national newspapers does help with the pace of chapters and moving the story forward. I like to keep things gripping. In real life, you are lucky if you can keep someone’s interest all the way to the end of your newspaper article. I bear that in mind with my chapters,” she said.

This journalistic training meant Marsh knew how to scour the National Archives for proof of the criminal acts of the original gang, which added to the authenticity of fiction from a historical perspective.

“I think readers deserve the real deal, just as Alice Diamond wouldn’t want to pinch you a fake gem,” Marsh said.

In Queen of Clubs, there’s no fairytale ending for two of the protagonists. Quite the opposite.

“The 1950s was a really tough place to be a woman, let alone a woman who was fighting for fame or wealth, or to have a family and a job, even on the right side of the law,” Marsh said.  “Equality wasn’t in anyone’s mindset for many, many years to come.”


About the contributor: Author of the Delafield & Malloy Investigations series, the historical coming-of-age novel, Cinnamon Girl (Livingston Press, Sept. 2023), and more, Trish MacEnulty is currently working on a play about silent film star, Theda Bara. More info at her website.



In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissioned for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.