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Review: The Great Train Robbery, By Nick Russell-Pavier and Stewart Edwards

The night we all switched tracks

A link between Ronald Biggs and Frankie Howerd might seem ludicrous until one remembers The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery and realises how deeply the "Crime of the Century" engraved itself into the national psyche. Everyone involved in the £2.6m haul feels like a character from a British film, from Bruce Reynolds, in his handmade suit and Harry Palmer glasses, through embittered military men and ex-racing getaway drivers to a (sadly discredited) German mastermind with a duelling scar.

The raid on the Glasgow to London Royal Mail night train replaced the traditional image of smash-and-grab cosh-boys with one of highly skilled criminal technicians, and despite plenty of predictably outraged newspaper headlines, the public couldn't get enough of the details. One of the 16-strong gang was a bank robber and ladies' hairdresser, another was a former boxer, and five were never caught. Every element, from the sacks of old bank-notes to the lonely bridge where the signals were covered with black leather gloves, entered the nation's criminal iconography.

For the next 50 years, the theft, the trial (the longest in British criminal history) and subsequent escapes from high-security prisons were endlessly picked over and mythologised. Virtually everyone involved transcribed their version of events, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Images from The League of Gentlemen and The Italian Job were evoked, until the robbery generated its own fictionalised accounts with freshly minted versions of the leads played by everyone from Stanley Baker to Phil Collins.

In a postwar country still paralysed by regulation and austerity, the robbers were covertly admired for their military precision and planning, their refusal to use firearms, and their sheer bravado, while the Royal Mail was presented as complacent and outdated for using the same carriage on regular dates to transport huge amounts of cash through darkened, deserted countryside. The truth is inevitably more complex. The plan was flawed, the decision to unpack the money at a farmhouse proved fatal, and the police investigation failed to provide forensic evidence.

Few crimes have provoked such prolonged scrutiny. When the author Piers Paul Read met with seven of the robbers before writing his account, the man he described as the most sinister of the gang turned out to be their literary agent. Romantic notions about the robbery were counterbalanced by increasing disenchantment with the Establishment. Incredibly, one of the banks involved had no insurance against theft. Prosecutions were slow and the case dragged. State prevarication occurred just as it seemed the forces of anarchy were marshalling. But is it any wonder that we can visualise the events of a single August night more clearly than the protracted tangle of prosecutions that followed? This racing read reveals a strangely seductive lost world.