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Manitoba History: Review: Martin Robin, The Saga of Red Ryan and Other Tales of Violence from Canada’s Past

by Tim Trivett

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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The Saga of Red Ryan and Other Tales of Violence from Canada’s Past. Martin Robin. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1982. ix, 157 pp. ill., ISBN 0-88833-098-7.

The Saga of Red Ryan is Martin Robin’s second work of this genre. It is a collection of tales of criminality from Canada’s past. Robin’s The Bad and the Lonely appeared in 1976 and offered at once a fascinating and repulsive potpourri of murder and mayhem. The Saga, for the most part, repeats that formula.

The first chapter, “His Lordship,” is the incredible story of a confidence-man of unparalleled brashness. John Hamilton started life in Scotland as an illegitimate child. As an adult he gloried in illegal business ventures and even dared to defraud the perfidious Jay Gould. Although Hamilton pursued his criminal career in Britain and the United States, his story evidently qualifies as a tale of violence from Canada’s past because of his brief sojourn in Winnipeg in 1874 during which American officials tried to kidnap him and at the end of which he took his own life.

There is no doubt that Norman John “Red” Ryan, whose story is highlighted in this volume and who was the model for Morley Callaghan’s tragic ex-con “Kip Caley” in More Joy in Heaven, was a genuinely Canadian criminal. But quite unlike the fictional Caley, Robin’s Red Ryan was a man who could blame no one but himself for the bad end to which he came.

The other famous Canadian criminal Robin has included is Albert Johnson “the Mad Trapper.” Unfortunately, because of a Hollywood movie, a book by Rudy Wiebe and the subsequent noise generated in the media over these, lately we have been hearing about that case ad nauseum.

The three other tales in Robin’s work all contain ugly themes of racial strife in British Columbia. Robin has delved well and deeply into the unhappy circumstances surrounding the arrival of the S.S. Komagata Maru with its cargo of despised East Indians whose hopes of immigration were crudely dashed. His account of an Indian war in the northern wilds of the west coast is also compelling. However, by far the most gripping chapter has been saved for the last: “The Houseboy.” The houseboy was Wong Foon Sing, wrongly implicated in the death of Janet Kennedy Smith who cared for the baby daughter of Wong’s master. This 1920’s tale of prejudice, stupidity and official and private corruption reads like a hideous parody of a Raymond Chandler novel minus a solution and a character with the moral force of a Philip Marlowe. In this tale, Robin has presented humanity at its worst.

The Saga of Red Ryan possesses an attraction that is attributable in part to the seamy characters with which it deals. Those of us who enjoy a detective or mystery novel will find much to entertain us here. However, do not mistake The Saga for casual reading. Despite Robin’s style—delightful and witty—his book is packed with implications which are easily overlooked unless the reader pays close attention. As cautionary morality tales or as insights into Canadian society, the chapters of The Saga of Red Ryan offer more than a few revelations.

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