Barry Dickins’ latest book, Last Words: The Hanging of Ronald Ryan, implicitly poses a critical question: Does the world need yet another book about the death of Ryan, the last person to be legally executed in Australia? After all, Mike Richards’ 2003 book The Hanged Man: The Life and Death of Ronald Ryan – a thoroughly researched tome of more than 500 pages – already offers a definitive account of Ryan’s journey from inept petty criminal to cause célèbre to the end of the rope. It’s not as though Ryan’s life is virgin territory for Dickins, either – he first tackled the subject in his 1994 play Remember Ronald Ryan, then in his slim 1996 book Guts and Pity: The Hanging That Ended Capital Punishment in Australia, and more recently in his 2015 monologue Ryan.
Dickins’ familiarity with Ryan’s case shows through in his easy, conversational prose style – you can imagine Dickins composing the book into a dictaphone as he paces his study. As a result, reading Last Words is like listening to an accomplished raconteur spin a long and involved yarn, complete with colourful turns of phrase such as “having burnt the candle at both ends and employed an acetylene cutter right in the middle”. The loquacious style extends to the book’s structure – Dickins frequently deviates from the narrative, flashing backwards to Ryan’s past or forward to Melbourne circa 2016.
This digressive approach is more often than not charming, but it does mean that Dickins circles back to certain obsessions throughout Last Words – for example, railing against the redevelopment of Pentridge prison, or detailing the minutiae of the hard labour that Ryan endured in his various stints in jail. These repetitions, as well as a clanger where Dickins refers to transgender women as “women who are really men”, made me long for Last Words to have been given stronger editorial intervention.
As his history of writing about Ryan indicates, Dickins is hardly a neutral judge of Ryan’s character, and his affection for the man makes for a sympathetic portrait. That sympathy, however, leads Dickins to indulge in conspiracy theories about Ryan’s innocence of the murder of George Hodson – a well-worn path among Australian crime buffs.
With little to add to our understanding of the case, is another book necessary? Last Words’ publication date, exactly 50 years after Ryan’s execution, suggests commercial motives might be more at play than truth-telling. SZ
Hardie Grant, 192pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "Barry Dickins, Last Words". Subscribe here.