The prisoner–playwright who overdosed on opportunity
Wasted: The True Story of Jim McNeil, Violent Criminal and Brilliant Playwright
by Ross Honeywill
Viking, $32.95 pb, 312 pp, 9780670073955
Jim McNeil was a two-bit thug. A liar, a thief, a recurrent wife-beater and bully, probably a murderer, definitely a racist, he was a man in whom psychotic rage was seldom remote. Contradictions were elemental to his character: he was intelligent and charismatic, yet obdurate and ratty. Violence and menace defined him, but he was at heart a coward. He meticulously planned armed robberies, but frequently bungled their execution. He was nicknamed ‘The Laughing Bandit’, but his smiling demeanour was born of contempt for the people he traumatised and of disbelief at the ease with which he could snatch wealth. As the subtitle of Ross Honeywill’s aptly named biography makes clear, McNeil was also a playwright of subtle instinct and luminous talent. His is a Jekyll–Hyde conundrum well worth this contemplation.