The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell

“Stephen Jackley had, like many young people, looked around and concluded that the world was not fair. And like many young people, he’d wanted to make a difference. It’s just that, rather than going on protest marches, involving himself in politics, or running sponsored marathons, Stephen ended up robbing banks.”

In the later parts of 2007 and through much of 2008, the world economy came to the brink of near-collapse in the most severe economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. While the reasons behind this collapse are complex, the initial push that caused the dominoes to fall is largely attributed to subprime mortgages; essentially, banks were lending money they didn’t have to people who couldn’t hope to pay it back. As much of the world’s economy operates on credit and promises of money owing, the sudden global realization that these promises could not be upheld led to a cascading effect that shuttered major banks (Lehman Brothers chief among them), caused massive unemployment, and forced nations to bail out affected industries.

The aftermath continues to be felt around the world today. In the United States, the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 was enacted to attempt to prevent a similar catastrophe. In the wake of the crisis, populist movements like Occupy Wall Street sprung up, in order to bring attention to the vast wealth inequality that seemed to spur these crises. Further compounding public anger was the lack of accountability; of all major bank employees, only one (Kareem Serageldin, of Credit Suisse) was sentenced to jail time for their role in perpetuating the recession. Most major bank CEOs actually made money off of the crisis, once the bailouts came into effect. 

Against all of this, it’s hard not to feel angry. The world is unjust, and it seems like even the people in power care little about making it more just. Perhaps this is why Stephen Jackley, a young man from south-western England, sought to right this inequality as only an outlaw could: he wanted to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Jackley’s ire was not with any one person, however, and so he did not plan to rob a mansion or other bastion of individual wealth; instead, he decided to target banks, which he viewed as the source of modern economic inequality.

The bold nature of these crimes and the righteousness with which he sought to act fascinated Ben Machell, a journalist from The Times , who met with Jackley on multiple occasions for candid interviews about his motivation and his perspective on the crimes. The resulting book, The Unusual Suspect: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Day Outlaw (Ballantine Books, 2021), is a compelling account of a young man’s obsession with injustice and the troubled path he took to right these wrongs. 

As the financial crisis was revving up, Jackley committed a series of bank robberies across small towns and cities in England. He had no prior history of crime, violent or otherwise. He would plan his robberies carefully, stowing disguises in nearby locations in order to quickly change his appearance. He wore the mask of the Ghostface killer from the Scream films in one robbery. He wore a 60s-era pop hairstyle in another. He would use a replica pistol to intimidate bank employees, as real firearms are nearly impossible to acquire in England. He would begin robberies by tossing a scratched one-pound coin (though not the side with the queen’s visage; he thought that disrespectful), and would stash proceeds from his crimes in nearby trees for later access. Sometimes he gave them to people without housing. Other times he used them to finance travel, or more elaborate crimes. He viewed his actions as inherently good; he could not imagine why one man might not be able to sleep with the lights off after being threatened by him with a knife, or why another woman might find herself panicking every time a new person entered her bank branch. He took on the moniker of another legendary outlaw, calling himself Robin Hood, carving the initials RH where he travelled and signing some of the pound-notes he stole with the same letters.

“To take just a drop hoarded by the rich and scatter but a little to the poor. Is it justice to keep millions languishing in poverty as a few hundred enjoy excessive wealth?”

The Unusual Suspect is a remarkably well-told account of one young man’s effort to change the world through crime. Machell’s telling is almost novelistic; he leaps back and forth in time from chapter-to-chapter, lending suspense to an outcome that has already been determined. One narrative follows Jackley from his youth, growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome in a home with a bipolar father and a schizophrenic mother. It details how he had difficulty connecting with children his own age, and how certain things would become obsessions (a hallmark trait of Asperger’s), from advanced physics to, later, economic inequality and injustice. The escalation of this obsession into a desire to act with righteous anger seems a natural one in Machell’s telling, and the reader is never left without an understanding of Jackley’s motives. Indeed, Machell seems largely sympathetic to Jackley throughout the book. While he never endorses the crimes, he sees a young man who saw inequality in the world and sought to change it. He refers to Jackley as Stephen throughout, a human touch that I’ve elided here for the sake of style. He acknowledges how the challenges of Jackley’s Asperger’s may have led him to crime without ever demonizing it; instead, he empathetically explains to those unfamiliar with the condition the way that Asperger’s might have spurred Jackley onward when others might have stopped. The book never seems like a cautionary tale about the mentally ill, and Machell deserves immense credit for that.

The second narrative is of Jackley’s time in prison — largely in American prisons, which Machell unflinchingly depicts as brutal, especially for a man in Jackley’s condition. Machell describes how Jackley is placed in solitary confinement, and then on suicide watch; both of these assignations came from his Asperger’s prompting him to ask matter-of-fact questions about how one might escape or how one might attempt suicide in prison. Both questions came from a place of curiosity; Jackley certainly fantasized about escape and longed to find a way, but he never considered harming himself. He could not perceive why persistent questions about self-harm might land him on suicide watch. This aspect of the narrative is just as compelling as the story of how Jackley ended up there; it describes him speaking to inmates in this same blunt manner, but also recognizing their inherent humanity. 

“Many of the prisoners I encountered in America came across as normal, grounded, intelligent, and remorseful . . . American drug laws mean that would be a relatively minor offense in the UK could equate to many years in prison in the U.S. It means that many people had lived next-to-normal lives before they came to prison.”

There is, perhaps, the sense of a missed opportunity here; a contrast to be drawn between Jackley’s perception of people on the outside and his comrades in the prisons. When he was free, he saw people more as obstacles, not humans. He thought they would be rational actors; surely the man he threatened with a knife wouldn’t carry trauma from that incident, right? It’s not like Jackley ever intended on actually hurting them. 

In contrast, Jackley’s time in prison is filled with accounts of criminals living the best life they can within their confines, such as when they organize makeshift church services. He befriends them, as his accent makes him something of a novelty to the American prisoners. Admittedly, my desire to see these threads connected is perhaps a testament to the skill with which Machell tells his story: I frequently felt as though I was reading a novel, and in a novel, themes leap easily from the page. But reality is not always so neat.
This does not mean that the book is totally thematically empty, even if Machell disagrees: “This is not a book with a message,” he says in the closing chapter. He instead goes on to state that he hopes that the reader recognizes that Jackley, and the actions of people like Jackley, do not come from nothing. These are people who are born and shaped by the society in which they live and how that same society responds to the neurodivergent.

Machell’s argument is noble, and the seeds of it can be seen scattered throughout the book. The Unusual Suspect is an empathetic tale of how the daily injustices of modern life can destabilize anyone, but especially those who perceive the world differently than most. Unfortunately, these are only seeds. In the end, The Unusual Suspect  is largely a journalistic retelling of Jackley’s crimes, albeit a very readable one, when Jackley’s Asperger’s comes up, it is mostly used to explain his obsessions: his desire to right wrongs; his desire to find a soulmate; his desire to purchase a gun to better rob banks with. While Machell’s portrayal is compelling and empathetic, it does not fully connect the greater sins of modern society to their individual victims.

And this, perhaps, is the greatest failing of the book: it takes the biggest injustice of modern economic history and places a young bank robber in opposition to it, but does little to explore that relationship. Instead, it satisfies itself in the telling of the tale. Unfortunately, its focus on pointing out the implausibility of Jackley’s plans to right these wrongs (most would agree that a series of a bank robberies will not undo global capitalism) undermines Machell’s own stated purpose of highlighting the way that modern society might shape people like Stephen Jackley to begin with. Because of that, The Unusual Suspect stands out as an incredibly readable story, but also a hollow one, without the heartbeat at its core to make it truly sing. 

Please add The Unusual Suspect to your Goodreads shelf and follow Ben Machell on Twitter. Don’t forget to follow True Crime Index on Twitter and please visit our Goodreads for updates on what we’re reading!

About the Writer:

Colin Ennis is a writer working out of Kingston, Ontario. His work can be found on mapsandmazes.ca.

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