Unabridged only about 4 hours, read by Roddy McDowall
Rather confusingly, this brief and engaging true crime chronicle (it is NOT a novel) has appeared in English under three different titles over the years: The Heist of the Century, Under the Streets of Nice, and The Gentleman of 16 July. To make things even more confusing, although the book was largely the work of French journalists writing under the pseudonym Rene Maurice, some editions prominently bear the name of bestselling thriller-writer Ken Follett on the cover. As Follett explains on his web site, the original translated manuscript was a mess, and he was hired (before he was an established brand) to "fix" it. He spent about two weeks on it and since then has more or less disavowed it: " Not only was it not my best effort, it was well below what I could do.... It's still not a good book, but I turned a completely unpublishable manuscript into something more or less respectable."
More or less respectable is more or less accurate, the prose is far from great, but the story itself is absolutely fascinating. It tells of an astounding bank heist in Nice, France in the summer of 1976. A gang of twenty criminals, under the direction of a self-mythologizing right-wing dreamer named Albert Spaggiari spent two months digging a 25-foot tunnel from the city sewer system into a bank vault. Once in, they proceeded to spend the weekend breaking into safe deposit boxes before leaving with some $8 to $10 million in cash, gold, and jewelry and daubing the phrase "sans haine, sans violence et sans arme" on the wall! The book focuses on the heist and the small details that led to Spaggiari's eventual capture. He's a fascinating figure, an ex-paratrooper, OAS member who came within a phone call of assassinating President de Gaulle, but also a photographer who rubbed shoulders with the city elite and had connections with the underworld. The improbable end to the story includes his escape from imprisonment and subsequent flight to Paraguay, where he lived a life of high style and luxury.
The book speaks frequently about how Spaggiari heist and escape was received with general applause by the European public, and how he became a kind of folk hero. Much of this can be attributed to the general human affection for those who poke fun at the authorities (Spaggiari granted numerous magazine interviews until his death in 1989, always taunting the police) without causing any violence. But this obscures the rather darker question surrounding his connection to underground far-right organizations. The book is a little frustrating due to murkiness surrounding the affair. There are some disturbing mistakes made by the police and several indications that Spaggiari was well-connected to France's right-wind elite. In the following years, there were several similar heists elsewhere in France and Europe, including one executed only a month after the Nice job and thus could not possibly be a copycat. There's even an appearance by the CIA!