Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Book Review: Crime Zone, a policeman's memoir of Tangier

Crime Zone by Col. Gerald Richardson (London: John Long, Ltd., 1959) is a memoir by the British Criminal Investigation Division chief in Tangier during the famous days of the International Zone, when several different countries ran the city as a tolerant free port. Since we’ve heard so much about this era from the writings of the Beats--who seemed to have spent more time having sex and smoking dope than actually writing--it’s interesting to have a view from the “other side.”

Richardson tells his story in a clear, easy-to-read manner. Sadly, about half of his story doesn’t take place in Tangier. He talks about his early days as a cop in London, then in wartime Italy, especially Trieste before it was officially handed over to the postwar Italian government. While this is all pretty interesting, it takes up half a book that’s advertised as being about Tangier.

It gets better once he makes it to Tangier. His first day on the job he’s taken for a tourist and two guys in an alley try to mug him! Richardson moves on from this encounter to tell of his bringing various people to justice in a town full of swindlers, arms merchants, and drug addicts. He was especially concerned about the latter (one wonders if he ever shadowed Burroughs) but he was never able to do anything about Tangier’s drug problem because of the lax laws at the pharmacies for dispensing “medicine” and the generally tolerant public attitude towards drugs. The locals weren’t very tolerant of another incident, in which a fake bank was set up, attracted accounts of nearly a million dollars, and vanished overnight!

Richardson also mentions Tangier’s large homosexual population, one of the things that drew so many artists and writers to the place. Unlike virtually everywhere in Europe, Tangier had no laws against this in the 1950s and so Richardson shrugged his shoulders and chased after real criminals. It’s refreshing to see such tolerance in a book so old. Well, tolerance may be overshooting the mark. Richardson seems to have disapproved of the goings-on but since it wasn’t illegal, his cop’s mentality told him that he shouldn’t worry about it.

It’s revealing to read this and see how Tangier has changed and not changed since it’s the 1950s. Homosexuality is now illegal, although tolerated. Drugs are also illegal, although kif and hash are smoked openly in the cafes. The hustlers and the con men still make their rounds. I can’t count the number of times some shifty character has come up to me in a cafĂ© saying he has a great scheme for making a fortune, if only he could get a little initial investment from an enterprising man such as myself. . .

I’m giving this book three stars. For those fascinated by Tangier’s International Zone days or British police history, it will make an interesting addition to their library. For everyone else, it’s a somewhat unfocused narrative that lacks any of the big names from Tangier’s past to lend it spice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If it's still of interest - to answer your question re: Burroughs: Oliver Harris claims that Burroughs appears in this book as "Morphine Minnie."

Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

You can also find him on his Twitter feed and Facebook page.