1963. I remember it well. Before 1963 AJ, who was a Police detective in Auckland, could spend his time investigating the theft of Monsteria deliciosa plants or cattle from the city council pound. At the beginning of 1963 he was up in the Waitakere ranges helping to catch an insane man who had killed three people, including two policemen. A month later two more were killed in Wellington. At the end of 1963 two wannabe Al Capones were shot in Bassett Road and AJ was in a boat under the harbour bridge looking for the machine-gun.
|AJ in 2004, Bassett Road|
I’ve been reading Scott Bainbridge’s meticulously researched book about the Bassett Road machine-gun murders and it’s all come back to me. 1963 was the year that Auckland changed. From being a small town where everything that went on in the criminal world was known to every policeman assembled each morning at headquarters, it became, at least for a while, what the press called a little Chicago.
Before 1963 AJ could be rostered for all-night duty once in six months and spend the night in a car with a uniformed driver coping with anything that arose during the night. Imagine that: one detective for the whole of Auckland. Murders were so infrequent that a squad was formed only when they occurred. Anyone wanting a car for the day's enquiries formed a line outside the Chief Detective's office. There were never enough cars to go round so it was a matter of sharing or even taking a bus - detectives had bus passes so they could travel free.
On the street relations between the Police and the crims were positively chummy. As Bainbridge puts it, “the Jacks knew the crims, and the crims knew the Jacks”. A crim sidling up with a hungry look would get a cigarette or a couple of bob, and the favour might be returned with a tip about a job going down. They frequented the same pubs. They often liked each other. There was respect and understanding on both sides. The violence, when it occurred, was limited to their own kind.
We lived right in the city, in what Bainbridge calls “notorious Grey’s Avenue”. It didn’t seem so at the time. It was handy to work for both of us, and our children attended the kindergarten in the park across the road. I often heard the clink of chips and the roars of triumph from the Chinese gambling den at the bottom of the street as I passed. Apparently there was also a nightclub called the Grey Dove, with a beer house upstairs, and also a “dressmaker’s” establishment that was really a brothel, although I can’t imagine where it was – Grey’s Ave was quite short and two large blocks of flats took up most of it. However, I walked to and from work every day and was frequently propositioned in Grey’s Ave – I could have made a fortune had I been so inclined.
Bainbridge’s book brings those days back to life, teeming with characters who might have been a bit dodgy but were also somehow naïve and just mucking along the best way they could. The Bassett Road killings were done, it seems, in a spirit of bravado: one fellow playing hit-man because another was angry his girl was lured away from him. They had all seen too many gangster movies and read too many Micky Spillanes. How petty it seems, and how sad. As a result of these killings the armed offenders squad was formed. After 1963 nothing was ever quite the same.