Review: The Fix

Reviewed by Greg Fleming

Scott Bainbridge’s latest true-crime offering centres around one Robert Gardner - a used car salesman, born in London, whose offending reached to all corners of the globe.

Scott Bainbridge’s latest true-crime offering centres around one Robert Gardner - a used car salesman, born in London, whose offending reached to all corners of the globe.

In one of his schemes in England, Gardner sold expensive cars to people he met in the pub. It worked like this: once he’d established what model of car they wanted he went to a nearby dealer and asked if he could take that model for a test drive. He’d then arrange to meet up with the buyer, insisting that the deal be in cash, leave them with the car and head off to his next victim.

He made his way to New Zealand after being run out of Mexico, Canada and Israel. Although he set up a successful used car company in Sydney in the mid-1960s and was very comfortable, he was addicted to the thrill of the scam. Like all grifters Gardner was, by all accounts, charming, bright and a great talker who always had his eye on the next big score.

Gardner considered New Zealand - “more conservative, naïve and gullible” - the perfect environment for a grifter to operate. His grand idea? To sell cosmetics through dairies and milk bars here to take advantage of the growing number of women entering the workforce at the time and their desire to look like movie stars.  Having cosmetics available through dairies meant that women could purchase their cosmetics on the weekends when their regular stores were closed. 

To carry out his plan Gardner assembled a team of Aussie grifters - including a stunning, call-girl from Sydney who sweet-talked the more resistant marks and a slick talker who is described as ‘a skinny version of Michael Caine in the Ipcress File.’

Their job was to sell franchise “deals” to an array of New Zealand businesspeople, promising fantastic returns for little effort. Once the money was in, Gardner and his team skipped the country with the proceeds.

Bainbridge’s first two books, Without a Trace and Still Missing inspired the TVNZ series The Missing.  These, along with his 2019 book The Great NZ Robbery - about the 1956 Waterfront Payroll Robbery where around $1 million in today’s money was stolen - have made him a go-to for local true crime readers.

While The Fix highlights another intriguing tale from our criminal past, I found the way Bainbridge chose to tell the story distracting. His tendency to incorporate pseudo period slang in short, staccato sentences – a la James Ellroy’s The L.A. Quartet - doesn’t always serve the story. Here’s an example: ‘Detectives spread the broadcast net far and wide. They hogged the squad room and converged; goosed and jerked the nod. A few more jive-leads popped. They fragged and framed and looped it all back, but vibed no trace job. The net result: nobody knew shit.’ The effect is more comic than informative and detracts from the flow of the narrative.

That misgiving aside, this is another well-researched book that tells the story not only of Gardner and his team of grifters but also that of the three Auckland detectives who out-shone the FBI, Mossad, Scotland Yard and the Royal Canadian Mounties in bringing them to justice.

The Fix contains no murders or unexplained disappearances - usually a given in the genre – rather it’s the connections to corrupt Australian detectives, the ingenuity of Gardner and his gang and the insight it gives into 1960s’ New Zealand society that ensure this is another compelling read for true crime aficionados; just be prepared to wade through some rather idiosyncratic prose.

Reviewed by Greg Fleming