Jim Brown's almost true story of a Canadian bank robber named Red Ryan
He thrived in an age when people hated banks and the press loved bank robbers
Jim Brown is well known to Calgarians as the former host of the Calgary Eyeopener and The 180, as well as the co-director, with Gary Burns, of the films Radiant City and The Future is Now!
He joined host David Gray on Monday to talk about his new book, The Golden Boy of Crime, The Almost Certainly True Story of Norman "Red" Ryan.
It tells the story of a criminal whose legend was created at a time when the facts were often just one of many alternative ways to tell a story in a newspaper.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: I want to begin at the beginning if we can. You're at home, and the editor of a big publishing house calls up and says, "Hey! You want to write a book about a bank robber named Red Ryan?"
A. My first thought was, I don't think I want to write a book about a bank robber. But something about him reminded me of a book that I'd read before. Morley Callahan wrote a novel based on this guy that I read and really enjoyed, so I thought maybe there's something interesting here.
I started reading the journalism that was written about Red Ryan back in the '20s and '30s, and then I was hooked — because the journalism was so atrociously bad that you couldn't not write about it.
It was just so interesting! No two accounts seemed to be the same. You had all these columnists making stuff up.
Q: But that was the era, wasn't it?
A. Everyone loved bank robbers back then. They were the stars of the [newspaper] page. There were no TV stars back then — there was no TV yet — and so we had bank robbers and baseball players and newspapers. That was basically it. And they had nicknames like all the ballplayers, too. Red Ryan was Canada's best bank robber.
Q: How did that happen? Tell me who this guy is.
A: Born in Toronto, he basically started stealing things as soon as he could walk — and from there, climbed up the theft ladder.
At 17, he winds up in Kingston Penitentiary, and you figure life's over, because he was sent up [to jail] for a long time. But he signed up to join the Canadian Army to fight in the First World War. That got him out of jail.
He shows up in England. He just starts stealing stuff there, then he goes away a while and then finally he goes back to Canada.
He starts robbing banks. He gets arrested. This time he is sent to Kingston forever — but he escapes and the Toronto Star sends their new hotshot reporter, Ernest Hemingway, to cover his escapes. So he becomes a huge star and, folks, that part's true, in case you're wondering, because with this story you never know.
Q: OK. I mean, for example, this did happen? Hemingway covered the escape?
A. Yeah, Red Ryan and four other guys. He called him Red Ryan, which was legitimately his nickname, but Hemingway just made up nicknames for the other four guys. One of them he called Runty and his nickname stuck with him for his entire life.
Anyway, some of it's true, some of it's not.
But it doesn't really start to get interesting until he's captured again and sent up — this time forever.
And then, a couple of years later, these stories start coming out in the Toronto Star, mainly that Red Ryan is a reformed man, that he has become an acolyte of of the prison priest, who has turned him around.
And then the Star starts lobbying the prime minister R.B. Bennett to pardon him — and Bennett listens to them, of course, and pardons him.
He's released. He's the star. He's the guest of honour at police picnics. Everyone loves him. But at night, he's back to robbing people and blowing up safes again.
Finally, he gets shot to death in Sarnia.
Q: One of the things about this story that intrigues me — and you point out in your book — is that this [era] is a time where they made stars out of bad people. That doesn't happen anymore, does it?
A. No. You can sort of see where it was coming from, though. A lot of this happened during the Depression. You know, a lot of the people who are reading the Star and other papers across North America had been foreclosed on by the banks, and these guys were basically robbing banks. So you can see why bank robbers were kind of folk heroes because everyone really hated the banks back then. You can understand that.
Q: What's the larger intellectual point you're making in the Red Ryan story?
A. There's a couple of things of things that I'm trying to get beyond the true crime aspect of this. One of them is the fact that journalism gets such a bad rap today. And one of the things that appealed to me about this project was it was an opportunity to basically say to people, if you think journalism is bad now, you haven't seen anything.
You want to know how bad it can be? I'll tell you how bad it can really be. Back in the days of the fedora wearing hack reporters who were basically hungover all morning and drunk all afternoon — that was one aspect of it.
But then there's also just the whole notion of truth. And I sort of hint at this in the subtitle of the book, which I call The Almost Certainly True Story of "Red" Ryan. It's this whole idea that we should be able to to read these things in the moment and say, this doesn't make sense. This can't be right. This just doesn't ring true.
But for some reason, we couldn't back then. And I'm not sure if we can really now because it almost seems like we are constantly being fooled by con men and different different kinds of people who just want to take advantage of us. And we never really seem to learn.
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.