If someone told you they were a modern day Robin Hood, what would you think? If a convicted armed robber, caught red-handed and responsible for several crimes in banks and betting shops, having threatened staff with knifes, guns, and other weapons, told you that he was doing all of this for the benefit of others, for the benefit of society, would you believe him? Probably not, right? But maybe it would complicate things for you slightly if you found that this wasn’t your typical criminal. Maybe you’d feel a little differently when you heard that the person responsible for these crimes was a 21-year-old Geography student who had never been in trouble with the law before, a 21-year-old who was living with an as yet undiagnosed condition of Asperger’s Syndrome.
When author Ben Machell meets Stephen Jackley at the start of The Unusual Suspect, those crimes are more than a decade old. Stephen has served his prison time. He is volunteering in a charity shop, living a quiet life, looking back on his short term as a wannabe Robin Hood and wondering what the hell he was doing. Ben meets Stephen intending to write nothing more than a quick article. But it turns out he is meeting a man who has much more material than that inside him, enough stories to tell to fill a book that never feels like it is short of something to say. He’s meeting a man with a morbidly fascinating story to tell.
We follow Stephen from his difficult childhood, through an awkward teenage stage, and all the way to rehabilitating after periods in both English and American prisons. But most fascinating are the parts in which he convinces himself that he can start an organisation through his crimes, that he can make enough money to begin to close the inequality gap and stop climate change in its tracks. As we watch him stumble through heists that are a mix of meticulous planning and saddening naivety, it is hard not to feel some sort of attachment to him and his cause. While, at the same time, feeling great sympathy for the individuals who had a weapon shoved in their face while just doing their jobs. Machell walks the line between these two sides of the story incredibly well, demonstrating the thought processes that led to Stephen’s decisions at the same time as showing the effect he had on others. He does this while telling a complicated tale at an entertaining pace.
Any Cop?: This is a truly fascinating story – one that you might actually think was too infeasible if it was presented to you as fiction. Knowing it is true makes it all the more intriguing. Stephen has had a life that is at times traumatic and tragic, at times unique and exciting, and at times a mix of all of these things in one. Ben Machell puts that tale on the page perfectly.