The mystery of Billy Rags

Billy Rags, Sphere Books, 1975
McVicar By Himself, Hutchinson, 1974

Crime fiction is just far too large a literary field to aspire to anything near being a completist in terms of reviewing. That said, the British noir author Ted Lewis has been something of a favourite on this site. I reviewed Jack’s Return Home aka Get Carter (1970) and its two sequels, as well as the novels Plender (1971) and GBH (1980). But there is one more Lewis work I want to tackle, Billy Rags, originally published in in 1973 and which, coincidentally has just been re-released by No Exit Press in the UK.

Billy Rags is very closely based on the life of the real British criminal John McVicar. Just how closely I’ll get to directly. McVicar was an armed robber, declared ‘public enemy no 1’ by Scotland Yard in the 1960s, until he was apprehended and given a 23-year sentence. He was also a serial escapee and after his final arrest in 1970 received a 26-year sentence but was paroled eight years later. McVicar was also something of a uniquely 1960s/70s phenomena, the self-aware/educated working class career criminal turned author and commentator on prison reform, a major social debate in those two decades. He studied for a university postgraduate, wrote an autobiography, McVicar by Himself, published in 1974, and authored a couple of other true crime books. He balanced his intellectual pursuits with a lingering air of being a former villain, which no doubt contributed to the aura around him. As the violent late Australian criminal turned author Mark ‘Chopper’ Read once reportedly said ‘Posh people love gangsters’.

A film version of his autobiography, co-scripted by McVicar, appeared in 1980. The film, starring The Who front man Roger Daltry and directed by Tony Clegg who also did the excellent Sweeney II (1978), is structured in two parts. The first takes place in Durham Prison, where McVicar was doing time. The second is after he has escaped and is on the run in London, during which he balances trying to re-establish his relationship with his wife and young son, while attempting to stay a step ahead of the law, while planning the one last job that will fund a new life for he and his family in Canada. All up, not a bad film, with plenty of old school London colour and movement and a great soundtrack by Daltry.

Billy Rags was published one year before McVicar’s autobiography hit the shelves. It opens with a botched prison escape led by career criminal William Cracken, who is seven years into a ten stretch for a failed payroll robber in which a policeman was shot. The novel, told in the first person by Cracken, is broken into two parts. The first is set in prison and sees the narrator engaging in various challenges to prison authority, against the screws and particularly the prison governor. ‘I was glad I got Burnham,’ Craken says in the opening paragraph. ‘Not at first, and certainly not when I parlayed with the Governor, Captain Reece. He used to swish around the wing letting all the screws salute him; he and I had no difficulty whatsoever in identifying each other as enemies. He was shit-scared of me and he knew I knew it.’ Cracken emerges from these struggles with a few pyrrhic victories but, as he says at one point in the book, ‘they [the prison authorities] always win in the end’.

An image of John McVicar, take while he was on the run.

A series of short flashbacks tell his life up until this point: his conscious decision to drop out of school and choose a life of crime, his various family issues, including a junkie sister on the game to support her habit, and the failed heist that landed him his current jail stretch. Cracken, like McVicar, is self-educated and aware, something of a nascent prison reform activist, and a natural leader. The realization that he wants to get out of the criminal life and rejoin his wife and small child on the outside, sets up the second half of the novel; his next escape plan, told in great technical detail. In the process, Cracken betrays another criminal trying to muscle in on his escape plan, Walter Colman, supposedly based on another well-known real life British gangster, Charlie Richardson. The escape comes off but now Cracken must avoid not only the police who are searching for him, but criminals associated with Colman, who is still in jail and wants revenge.

I found Billy Rags a rather flat read. In the place of the narrative drive and tension of books such as Jack’s Return Home or GBH, Lewis gives the reader lashings of technical detail about prison life and Cracken’s escape. It is an interesting enough glimpse into the milieu of british jail life in the early 1970s, but really slows down the pace and, at times, almost feels like reading non-fiction. Also absent are the dark swirling undercurrents that characterize the best of Lewis’s work. In Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir, Nick Triplow suggests that Billy Rags was Lewis’s attempt to try a different type of crime novel, more realistic and traditional. Once can’t blame Lewis for trying on some new authorial clothing – and the book was certainly quite well received by critics upon release – but I found this new style ill-fitting and rather beige in colour.

Indeed, the most interesting thing about Billy Rags is the mystery around its possible links to McVicar’s own autobiography. According to Triplow, in 1971 McVicar managed to smuggle the manuscript for what would eventually be McVicar by Himself out of prison via his lawyer, it being forbidden for criminals to write memoirs for publication or profit at the time. It was transcribed and edited by Goronwy Rees, a publisher, writer and academic, who had also been a communist in the 1930s and, according to some sources, a Soviet spy. ‘The plan was that it would be published, presumably under a pseudonym and a portion of the advance provide an income for the woman with whom McVicar had been living prior to recapture,’ writes Triplow. ‘She was also the mother of his seven-year-old son, Russell. It would also be a means for McVicar, then entering a period of study and re-education, to prepare for life outside prison.’

Triplow notes the profound similarities between Billy Rags and the original text of McVicar’s autobiography, the two being almost identical save for name changes. The unanswered question is, did Lewis get a chance to read McVicar’s manuscript while it was doing the rounds of agents and publishers,and essentially plagiarise it for his novel? Or did Lewis get in contact with McVicar and do a deal with him, agreeing to write a fictional version of the criminal’s autobiography in return for a slice of the proceeds? Lewis rubbed shoulders minor villains in various pubs and clubs in Soho and could have used these to reach out to McVicar or those connected with him.

It is another in a long line of mysteries associated with the late Lewis’s writing career.


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