Signal Red by Robert Ryan

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Signal Red by Robert Ryan

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: Although taken from the real-life Great Train Robbery of the 1960s, this is a work of fiction. Ryan digs deep into the robbers' psyche and tries to tell us why they carried out this most audacious of crimes and more importantly perhaps - was it all worth it?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: {{{isbn}}}

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Ryan has certainly researched thoroughly for this novel - and it shows. Straight away the blurb on the back cover tells us there's an 'afterword' by Bruce Reynolds, no less than the ringmaster/leader of the Great Train Robbery gang. Notice how it's always given capital letters. Even all these decades down the line, those readers of a certain age remember it and perhaps shake their head in amazement. And there's also a very useful 'aftermath' section as Ryan painstakingly sets out all the robbers' names and what's happened since that date in the summer of 1963. Perhaps, like others, I also assumed the leader, the top man if you like, was Ronnie Biggs. No so, apparently. I also remember television footage of his release from prison on compassionate grounds only a year or so ago. The crime seems to have achieved almost mythical proportions - some would say it's up there with what were you doing when JFK was assassinated?

Right from the first chapter, Ryan gives us a strong flavour of that era, the 1960s. So there's plenty of references to the pop music of the time, books being published, tv programmes and the whole mini skirt explosion, for example. It all feels like a million years ago. It feels old-fashioned and rather innocent in a funny sort of a way, considering the book's subject. It's also endearing charming which is down to Ryan's style of writing.

This is a blockbuster read at nearly 500 pages but it's an easy read. Ryan's style is chatty, conversational and as most of the action happens in south London there's a definite 'Del Boy' feel. The dialogue (and there's lots of it) is first-class. It's very natural and the wise-cracks, in-jokes, crude sexual innuendoes work well. Very authentic. As well as all that, the nicknames are usually explained in glorious comic detail. Very funny in places too. There's a lovely piece at the beginning where one of the younger members of the gang is not performing up to standard, bit of a loud-mouth shall we say. He gets a 'warning' in no uncertain terms in I could get Sid the Coalman to put a hundredweight of nutty slack down that black hole of a gob and there'd still be room for me to reach in and pull your lungs out. And the gang's wives and girlfriends are a pretty scary bunch too.

In essence, the gang is after the big one, after disappointing 'jobs'. The one which will make them all rich so they don't have to risk everything again. I won't spoil the fictional story for you but the planning of the robbery takes your breath away. In a strange way I was impressed. No stone had been left unturned and all eventualities had been taken care of ... or so they thought. I was thinking to myself when reading these chapters that if the team had put all this effort and intelligence into proper jobs, what would the outcome have been?

Ryan gives us a huge build-up to the 'event' so that we're bursting at the seams. We want to know the tiniest detail. I must admit to being drawn in to the story right from the start. I was hooked. And I enjoyed it much better than I thought. I put this down to Ryan's gift of dialogue. Through him the characters truly sing on the page. Various prominent members of the Police Force(s) are also mentioned - in very colourful language. Cracking stuff.

There's a lovely couple of sentences describing one of the gang venturing into the suburbs ... lined with high walls and hedges ... this was an area where an Englishman's home was his castle, and the residents wished they still came with moats. And boiling oil ... This is an entertaining fictionalised take on that infamous crime. Recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to try Broken Bodies by June Hampson.

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Buy Signal Red by Robert Ryan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Signal Red by Robert Ryan at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
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