I came into possession of Signal Red through a competition – I can’t remember where from now, but the point is, I’m not sure I would have bought it as, although I love crime novels, I rarely read true crime books. What’s interesting about this book though is that while it does indeed concern a true crime (The Great Train Robbery), the story is told from the points of view of Tony Fortune, a fictional member of the gang and Roy James, one of the lesser-known players in the real-life events. Although the more famous players, such as Bruce Reynolds and Buster Edwards, are inevitably featured in the story, the use of the fictional and lesser-known characters does give a new perspective on the whole thing.
Robert Ryan begins Signal Red in 1992, when Tony Fortune is woken by a phone call from his old adversary in the Police Force, William Naughton asking him to talk down Roy James, who is besieged in his home after shooting his father-in-law. We then discover that Tony and Roy have been part of the Great Train Robbery. The book then takes us through the planning and execution of the ‘tickle’ and the inevitable aftermath, periodically showing us Roy and Tony as they talk over old times and where it all went wrong.
It took me a little while to get in to the book, but once I was a little way in the pace did pick up. What sparked my interest the most was the attention to period detail and you really do get a sense of 1960s London in the time just before the city boomed, when it still had its share of wartime devastation. There is also a real sense that for some of the players crime is the only way of life they have ever known and the only real option for them.
The passages detailing the robbery itself are meticulously detailed, but not at all slow for that, and the victims of the robbery (the train driver and Royal Mail sorters) are also featured, something you don’t very often see. In the closing chapters of the novel, Ryan focuses on the Police effort to catch the robbers, while facing their own pressure from the Establishment to recover the £2.6 million haul.
I did enjoy the book, but still wonder whether I should have – The Great Train Robbery has been glamorised somewhat, even since the early days while the robbers were still at large but, at the very heart of it, a crime was still committed and people were hurt. It was not a ‘Robin Hood’ crime as some have made it out to be, but a crime plain and simple, so enjoying a book about it did sit a little uncomfortably with me. Nevertheless, looking at it from a fiction point of view, it is an expertly-written and gripping book and, if true crime is your cup of tea, you would do well to read it.
You can buy the book from Amazon (sponsored) and others. This is the paperback edition, but the Kindle edition is also available.
Robert Ryan has a tremendous body of work, which i had no idea about. If you would like to find out more about him then take a look at his website at http://www.robert-ryan.net.