At one level Willie The Actor by David Barry is a crime novel in which a ruthless criminal commits bank robberies. On another it achieves the feel of dramatised documentary, for its eponymous anti-hero, William Sutton, is not fictitious and lived a real life. David Barry introduces us to Willy in 1923 and we bid him farewell in 1976. And it's a farewell that is fonder than the reader might have been expected at the outset.
Willie The Actor is not a "who dunnit" in any sense, because at no point in the book are we left in any doubt about who is perpetrating the robberies. We even have an insider's description of his crimes, a rationale and a plan for their execution. It's Willie, of course, who is behind them. They are his claim to fame, a fame that the novel fills out. Willie, or William, or Bill - however we meet him - did not commit one of the robberies, however, and that one proves to be a particularly important one for him and his future. In this case we find him falsely accused and wrongly convicted. He was innocent and yet he was positively and definitively identified by a string of eye-witnesses. A touch of irony here.
Willie The Actor is not even very good at being a criminal. Yes, he succeeds in the short-term and money passes through his hands. But then he always fails, in that he usually gets caught.
Bill Sutton's first forays into armed robbery are facilitated by rented outfits by means of which an accomplice impersonates various forms of officialdom. To cover their rental of this gear, the pair establish a bogus theatre school, an operation that obviously needs to rent costumes on a regular basis. Hence Bill Sutton is labelled with his nickname, Willie The Actor, in media reports of his antics.
But still, he is a criminal. He mixes with some unsavoury sorts, hoodlums, gangsters, extortionists, racketeers. Many of these acquaintances, partners or employers think nothing of shooting to get their own way. They maim, kill and deform human obstacles that even threaten to bar their path.
But not Willie. He is different. He is an almost honourable thief who might threaten violence but never uses it. He even displays a gentility, a compassion which eventually allows him to go straight for a number of years, holding down a poorly paid job in a care home for the elderly.
David Barry's portrayal of this enigmatic character is subtle in that his criminal is always on the brink of achieving a respectability for which, we sense, he yearns. He is capable of love, whereas his partners in crime often exploit and oppress their women. He could have become a devoted and loyal father, but circumstances apparently require him to take a different route. And, perhaps most enigmatically of all, he might even have aspired to academic achievement, as evidenced by his life-long love of literature.
But it is not to be. In the end Willie is both debt-free and penniless. He has harmed no-one directly, but also perpetrated serious criminal acts. He has realised none of his talents, but has achieved undeniable infamy. And eventually he aspires to the humdrum commonplace of the ordinary, a luxury his apparent need to rob has previously always denied him.
David Barry conveys this complexity with a true lightness of touch. We never really get to know William Sutton, however. This is not a criticism of the book, because we are left with the impression that neither did anyone else.