Gentle Johnny Ramensky by Robert Jeffrey is the remarkable, and remarkably sad, story of Johnny Ramensky, also known as Johnny Ramsay. Johnny Ramensky was born in 1905 into a Lithuanian family in Glenboig, a mining village in North Lanarkshire. His later childhood was spent in one of the toughest areas of one of the toughest cities on earth, the Gorbals, and here he began his encounters with the law. He first appeared before Glasgow Police Court in 1916, at the age of 11; and in 1921, at the age of 15, was committed to borstal for three years for theft.
It was the beginning of a life that would see him spend more than 40 years in jail: and it was perhaps inevitable that when he died in 1972 at the age of 67, he was behind bars at the time. Three things make Johnny Ramensky's story rather different from that of any other habitual criminal. The first is that his particular "calling" was one that required a tremendous amount of technical expertise. He became famous as a hugely skillful safe blower. The second is that the physical prowess that allowed him to scale buildings and get to the safes whose contents he wanted to steal equipped him equally well as a means of escaping from prison. In all he escaped five times from Peterhead Jail: in 1934, 1952 and three times in 1958.
The third thing that makes Johnny Ramensky's story rather special is that in 1942 he volunteered to join the Commandos: and despite being twice the age of many of his fellow trainees, passed the highly physically demanding selection before going on to act as a trainer in the art of safe blowing; and taking part in a series of operations in which he was parachuted in to occupied territory to blow open safes belonging to members of the German high command.
Robert Jeffrey does well to present a story which could easily have had a degree of repetition about it, and he also tries to get under the skin of John Ramensky and answer the question that inevitably occurs to the reader: why did a man who was clearly intelligent persist in committing a crime whose highly skilled nature meant that he might as well have signed each crime scene with his name?