"So Bizarre, It Must Be True... Nonfiction Brings the Past Alive" Nate Hendley on Nonfiction & His Wild New True Crime Story
It was a plotline that could be considered too outlandish even for a TV crime drama: a bank robbery in an iconic costume, a shootout with a military veteran, and an insanity plea that kicked off a years-long legal and ethical debate.
In 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, Matthew Kerry Smith donned a Beatle wig and a mask, and walked into a quiet bank in North York toting a semi-automatic he'd painted pink. After robbing the bank, he was confronted by Jack Blanc, a veteran with a revolver who attempted to stop Smith. In the resulting shootout, Blanc was killed, Smith escaped, and a massive manhunt took place as the country held its breath.
Surprisingly, this piece of Canadian history has rarely been explored after the media firestorm of the time. Nate Hendley has brought this strange piece of Canadian true crime back with his fascinating book The Beatle Bandit: A Serial Bank Robber's Deadly Heist, a Cross-Country Manhunt, and the Insanity Plea that Shook the Nation (Dundurn Press).
Smith's insanity plea, his claim that his robberies were to finance a violent revolution, and his use of a semi-automatic weapon all had a lasting effect on debates around insanity as a legal defence, gun control, and mental health. Hendley explores not only Smith's wild crime but its legacy in a book that true crime fans will find hard to put down. We're excited to speak to him about The Beatle Bandit today as part of our True Story nonfiction interview series.
He tells us about the fascinating facts of the case that first attracted him to write about Smith, the North York local who first brought Smith's case to Hendley's attention (and shared essential research), and the reasons he loves writing nonfiction.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
My new book is called The Beatle Bandit. It’s about an intelligent but troubled young man named Matthew Kerry Smith who robbed banks to finance a revolution. On July 24, 1964, Smith disguised himself with a Halloween mask and long-haired “Beatle” wig and held up the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) in Bathurst Manor Plaza, North York. He killed a bank patron who tried to intervene and got away with over $25,000.
Smith was dubbed “The Beatle Bandit” by the media due to his choice of disguise. His case fuelled a national debate about guns, capital punishment, and insanity pleas.
I love storytelling, and the Smith case presented an amazing story. There are so many layers to this case. For example, the whole notion of “legal insanity” versus “medical insanity” which came up during Smith’s court trial. The case caused an uproar about gun control and the death penalty as well.
Smith was a bizarre, complex person. He was a criminal, murderer, and diagnosed schizophrenic who nonetheless served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), owned a home, and held down responsible jobs, when not robbing banks. Smith’s mother was schizophrenic, his father a former journalist turned successful entrepreneur.
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The man Smith murdered was named Jack Blanc. He was a veteran of both the Canadian and Israeli armies who seized a pistol during the robbery (banks at the time stocked revolvers, which staff were supposed to use in case of hold-ups). Smith killed Blanc in a gunfight outside the bank. Not the kind of thing you expect to happen in a peaceful, suburban neighbourhood near Toronto in 1964.
So many twists and turns.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
The research process began with a man named Paul Truster. Prior to COVID, I gave a library presentation about a different book. Paul approached me at this event and told me about the Beatle Bandit, a person I had never heard of before.
Paul grew up in Bathurst Manor, the neighbourhood where the CIBC robbery took place. He’s been fascinated by the Beatle Bandit case for decades. Over the years, Paul gathered a treasure trove of information, including Smith’s navy service records, government memos, police documents, and a transcript of the court proceedings after Smith was arrested.
Paul and I got together, and he convinced me this was a story worth pursuing. To further induce me to write a book, Paul handed over his massive cache of information.
I augmented this information with research of my own, including interviews with people who were present at the CIBC robbery as well as family members of Jack Blanc and Matthew Kerry Smith.
What do you love about writing nonfiction? What are some of the strengths of the genre, in your opinion?
I like to explore topics that people don’t know about. I like telling stories that fall into the “so bizarre, it must be true” category. Popular nonfiction brings the past alive and explores historical milieus that are both familiar and totally weird by modern standards.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I use a laptop and printer that also has a scanner. I scan everything, then back up my scans. I scanned the entire thousand-page court transcript of Smith’s trial, for example. Beyond that, I don’t need much, other than caffeine and a fast Internet connection.
What does the term creative nonfiction mean to you?
For me, creative nonfiction is all about writing the truth, using techniques borrowed from fiction such as scene-setting, dialogue, character development, and foreshadowing. For example, at certain points in my book, people engage in conversations. The dialogue I used came from police records, court transcripts, newspaper articles, and other sources, all of which are listed in the back of my book. There are no “imagined” conversations in The Beatle Bandit.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I work as a full-time professional writer. When not writing books, I’m doing interviews and articles for business and trade magazines and corporate clients. As a freelance journalist, you have to meet deadlines, interview reliable sources, and stick to strict word counts. I try to apply the same discipline to my book-writing, so I can keep going even if I do hit a rough patch.
Did you write this book in the order it appears for readers? If not, how did it come together during the writing process?
Before I start working on a nonfiction project, I always create a linear chronology of the events that are going to take place in the book. I thought it would be more interesting, however, to open The Beatle Bandit with a description of Smith’s murderous 1964 heist, rather than a description of his childhood.
What defines a great work of nonfiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
A great work of nonfiction tells a great story. It doesn’t just offer a massive ‘data dump’ of dates, names, and events. Great, recent nonfiction books include Manson by Jeff Guinn, Isaac’s Storm and Dead Wake by Erik Larson, and The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray.
What are you working on now?
Various ideas, which might turn into books, or might not.
Nate Hendley is a Toronto-based journalist, speaker, and author. His books include The Boy on the Bicycle, The Big Con, and Bonnie and Clyde: A Biography. He lives in Toronto. For more information, visit his website.