Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner


SOMETIMES I THINK I’M good and sometimes I think I’m bad.  I wish I could make up my mind, so I’d know which stance to take.

The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was “Basically, you’re not a bad person, Kunt.”

“Künt,” I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont.  “With an umlaut,” I explained.

“A what?”

“Umlaut.”  I poked two fingers in the air, as though blinding an invisible man.  “Two dots over the U.  It’s a German name.”

He frowned at my records,  “Says here you were born in Rye, New York.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  Wry, New York.

You will remember my piece of some months back about the much-publicized escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from Clinton Correctional Facility, more commonly known as Dannemora–a prison (and a town) that Westlake knew something about from his upstate days, and occasionally referenced in his books.  They managed to tunnel their way through the prison infrastructure, crawling through a pipe, and coming up through a manhole cover on the suburban street that faced the prison wall.  They actually did this twice, deciding not to escape the first time they came up–they went back to their cell to wait for a better moment.

It did not work out well for either of them, as was widely reported.   Stories about escaped prisoners rarely have happy endings, at least not for the escaped prisoners.

But suppose, just suppose, they had been living out a different kind of escape fantasy.  Suppose they had managed to somehow conceal their escape route indefinitely, arranged to have money from Matt’s successful sideline as an artist made available to them locally–they already had civilian clothes they were allowed to wear in the prison.

Suppose they had just now and again come out through that manhole, strolled around as free men, gone to local bars, had a few drinks, chatted up local girls, maybe gone home with a few of them (the question of ‘your place or mine?’ could be tabled indefinitely)–and then returned to their cells, nobody the wiser?   Even if they’d been found out eventually, all that would happen would be the loss of privileges (they were already serving life sentences), and they sure wouldn’t have been shot to death by the cops, as Matt was.  Security and freedom–the best of both worlds.   And if they’d committed crimes out there and avoided being captured and/or identified–who’d have ever suspected them?

And think how differently we’d have reacted to that story, if it ever came out.  Can you imagine such a thing?  Donald Westlake could.  With maybe a bit of help from some readers of his (or Richard Stark’s) who were themselves prisoners, and wrote him letters about prison life.  Including one about a prison so networked with tunnels that a truck parked outside the prison wall ended up sinking into the ground as some of those tunnels collapsed under it.

This is the eighth ‘Nephew’ book Westlake published, and in many ways the happiest of the bunch.  He breaks a lot of the rules of his own sub-genre in it, but we’ve seen him do that before–it often seems he created rules for the sole purpose of breaking them.   He managed to find a surprisingly large number of variations on the original theme he established in The Fugitive Pigeon, almost ten years before this book came out, and this is one of the most charming and off-beat variations he ever came up with.  And one of the funniest.

And truth be told, it’s still not as funny as the best Dortmunders.  Westlake was coming to the end of his rope with these books, as he already had with Parker, Grofield, and Tobin.  He had one more first-rate Nephew in him after this, at which point he let the form lapse for a very long time, only to kindasorta revive it at the tail-end of his career (it’s debatable, and we will debate it).  But taken as a whole, they represent a very important component in his overall production.  These peripatetic picaresques paved the way for his more mature comedic writing, and had things to say that he couldn’t have gotten across with Dortmunder.  Anyway, we can talk more about that when we get to the next one, which was published the following year.

Westlake, as we all should know by now, is a devout anti-authoritarian.  Authority figures make him itch.  He can’t see an imperious face without wanting to lob a pie at it (or, in the Parker novels, a bullet).    He’s aware of this prejudice, and tries to allow for it–we need some structure of authority in this world.  We also need to keep putting it in its place.   He felt this was a universal trait in humankind, with one significant caveat, which he mentioned in Dancing Aztecs.

Hispanics have a long tradition of defiance against authority. Come to that, the Irish and Italians and Jews also have a long tradition of defiance against authority. Thinking it over, everybody has a long tradition of defiance against authority. (Except the Germans, of course.)

Of course that’s a grossly unfair exaggeration made for satiric effect, but having been to Germany, I feel I can say with authority (which you should all rebel against!) that it’s not made up out of whole cloth.  And yet, there are German rebels, always have been–Martin Luther comes to mind, Oskar Schindler more recently, but their patron saint would probably be Marlene Dietrich.   A German rebel, by definition, has to be the most determined and resourceful of all, just to survive the consequences of rebellion in a heavily pro-authority environment.  And for whimsical reasons of his own, Westlake chose to make the hero of this book the American son of German immigrant parents.  Though to be sure, that’s partly just for the name.

Harry Künt is an American citizen because his parents fled Germany during the Nazi Era, being appalled by Hitler and the Nazis, and yet not wishing to stay and rebel against authority, particularly not an authority that has death camps and guillotines (you see what I mean about German rebels needing to be a cut above the rest).  Harry’s parents are honest decent people, who raise their one son lovingly and well, but the one thing he most wants, they will not let him have–a name that does not incite general mockery and derision from his fellow Americans.

See, in German, the equivalent word for ‘cunt’ is spelled ‘fotze’ (two syllables, accent on the first).  If your name happens to sound like fotze, you are probably in for some ribbing in German-speaking lands, unless maybe they don’t go in for puns there.  The fact that Hitler not keeping his birth name of Schickelgruber is considered such a vital element in his rise to power leads me to think that name-based mockery is not unknown in those parts.  But the name Künt presents no difficulties in Teutonic territories.   With or without an umlaut.

Harry’s parents (who, aside from one phone call from Harry to his mother, are not really characters in this book) just can’t understand why he’d want to change his proud old German name, and he doesn’t want to hurt them, so he’s had to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous classmates and army buddies, and even worse, with girls he’s sweet on, who keep breaking up with him because they don’t quite fancy the sound of ‘Mrs. Kunt,’ or the prospect of perpetually reminding people of the umlaut.

This had a bit of a warping effect, you might say, on Harry’s otherwise rather decent and likable personality.  Unlike Fred Fitch, in God Save the Mark, always getting fooled by others, Harry has decided to be the one who makes others play the fool.  Because God, as he sees it, played a practical joke on him, he’s spent most of his life compulsively pulling practical jokes on those around him, and has gone largely undetected while doing so, since nobody expects a guy whose name looks like cunt to act like such a dick.  So he keeps getting away with it, until one of his more spectacular stunts rather spectacularly backfires.

One afternoon, Harry parked a car with a naked female mannequin suggestively posed on the hood of a Chevy Impala, on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway.  The resulting multi-car pile-up led to a number of people being non-critically injured–including three children–but public indignation regarding this is not the only reason Harry ended up with a five-to-fifteen year prison sentence at Stonevelt, an upstate penitentiary near the Canadian border (pretty clearly modeled after Dannemora, an aerial view of which you can see up top).

See, among the victims of his gag were two U.S. congressmen.  Each of whom was accompanied at the time by a young lady to whom he was not married.  Hell hath no fury like a politician burned. Strings were pulled, and Künt was screwed.

But he’s decided to take his incarceration as a positive, not having any choice in the matter.  With good behavior, he can get out in a few years, and he’s hoping he’ll be able to get his pranking disorder under control before then.  And as he leaves Warden Gadmore’s office, he leaves a big wad of gum on the doorknob.   This bodes not well.

A short while later (just to remind us not all pranks are harmless, and not only authority figures get pranked), he hides the lower plate of his elderly cellmate who he likes very much–and then realizes, with great remorse, that the man, having just been released for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, before the prison dentist could complete his upper plate, or Harry could tell him about the gag, now has no plates of any kind.  Out in a cold world, with no family, no job, and no teeth.  Harry really doesn’t know if he’s a good person or not, but he rather suspects not.  He’d like to be, but he hasn’t figured out how.  Join the club, man.

Warden Gadmore doesn’t quite know what to make of Harry, who isn’t really a criminal, but clearly is some kind of social misfit, so he assigns him to making license plates–and then calls him back to the office–seems that somebody snuck a message into one packet of plates–“Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.”  Warden Gadmore warns Harry that this kind of thing had better stop.   Harry tells him he had nothing to do with it, which he didn’t–of course he’s not believed.  But it’s a first offense, so he’s simply reassigned.  To the prison gymnasium.

And it is there that he inadvertently stumbles into the most frightening and exhilarating experience of his life–the prisoners who run the gym, notably one Phil Giffin, are not happy with his presence, and he finds out why when he sees a man in civilian clothes step out of a locker.  The man points a gun at him, and he faints.

He’s locked up in an equipment room, until Phil can explain the situation.  Years ago, a prisoner doing a ‘five and dime’ (five to ten years) had a wife, who had a cousin, who was the contractor building the gym, back when there was money for that kind of thing.  The wife bought a house across from the prison.  The cousin built a tunnel (with carpeting, lighting, and everything) from the gym to the house.  Three of the lockers are actually doors to the tunnel, that can only be opened with a special key.

The guy had no intention of escaping–what’s the point? He’d just wait for some free time, go through the tunnel, have a nice lunch, watch some TV, take his wife to bed, go back to his cell.  It’s a short commute.  Plenty of working stiffs would envy such a life, not to mention such a wife.

Over time, the secret has been shared with a select few prisoners, each of whom has to buy his way into the club, then cash out when he gets released–there’s currently seven of them.  The wiry hard-eyed Phil Giffin, informal leader of the outfit.  The near-albino giant, Jerry Bogentrodder (somehow nobody ever makes jokes about his name).   A monstrous menacing mass of muscle named Billy Glinn.  The knobby-knuckled hard-boiled Joe Maslocki.  Eddie Troyn (the guy who pointed the pistol at Harry), a former military man imprisoned on mysterious charges.  Bob Dombey, with a name and personality borrowed from Dickens, whose wife currently owns the house the tunnel ends up in.  And the counter-cultural Max Nolan, a bit of a playboy in his off-time, regarding whom Harry has this bit of trenchant social commentary to impart to us–

There’s a funny double progression going on in prison these days, as more and more radicals arrive, sentenced for drugs or politics.  The rebels are radicalizing the criminals, which is why there’ve been so many prison riots and strikes recently, but at the same time the crooks are criminalizing the radicals.  A college graduate who enters prison for smoking marijuana or bombing an army recruitment office comes out knowing how to jimmy apartment doors and crack safes.  A few years from now the world in general may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

(Sidebar: This is a very white prison novel.  I mean, there’s not even any Italians in it, though the guy the tunnel was originally built for was named Vasacapa.  There are no African American or Hispanic characters at all, though there is a reference to the civil rights movement.  One assumes there are persons of color in there somewhere, but no reference to them is made.  In the 70’s, this monochromatic mixture is not the least bit realistic, if it ever was, and realism is not what Westlake is going for, obviously.  It’s not like minority advocacy groups would thank him for depicting their people as inveterate prison rats, right?  Race would be a distraction from the story he wants to tell.  And if they made a movie of this today, they would clearly have to go the Orange Is The New Black route [Oz is way too dark], but I really doubt there’s ever going to be a movie.  Though I would go see it.)

Anyway, this elite group within the prison can normally keep outsiders from getting assigned to the gym, but the warden’s unusual interest in Harry caught them off guard.  Arranging for his accidental death would be a hassle (so much red tape, and please don’t ask where the red comes from), so they vote to invite him into their group, and enjoy the benefits of the tunnel.  The ‘or else’ is left implicit.

They have no idea what Harry did to get locked up, but some prisoners who work in the office smuggled out his file for Phil to read, and here’s the thing–the authorities were a bit embarrassed to be giving such a stiff sentence to a practical joker to appease some humiliated congressmen, so they made it sound pretty dire, and weren’t all that specific in enumerating the charges.  Endangering the public welfare, menace to society, like that.  So the tunnel gang thinks Harry’s a desperate character, such as themselves.  Worthy of membership.   Harry knows otherwise, but if he tells them that, he’s 1)Not getting to go outside and 2)Probably dead.   So he doesn’t tell them that.   What they don’t know won’t hurt him.

However, he has not been able to restrain his pranking impulse, and even members of the tunnel gang are not immune from itching powder, shoelaces tied together, saran wrap stretched over toilets, etc.  And Harry does all this being painfully aware that in prison, the known practical joker’s chances of survival are just slightly better than the known child molester’s.  He really can’t stop himself. Because he’s still confused about who he is, and who he’d like to be, he can’t leave his old practical joker identity behind.

He does, however, get a new name, courtesy of Phil–see, he has to set up a bank account–with savings his his mother sends him after a confused phone call–to cover his membership fee for the tunnel group, and other miscellaneous expenses–and at the bank, Phil offhandedly identifies him to the teller as Harry Kent.

I almost corrected him.  Then, in a blinding flash, what he had done blossomed in front of me.  He had given me an alias!  For the first time in my life, with utter justification, I could be somebody other than Harry Künt.  With an umlaut.

She gave me a huge smile, saying “How are you?”

I gave her a huge smile right back.  “I’m just fine,” I said.  Oh let my prison term never end, I was thinking.  What did I care what they called me inside those walls; in this wonderful world outside I was Harry Kent.  What a beautiful name, what a noble name!  It sounded like something out of Shakespeare.  Harry of Kent awaits without, milord.  Without what, varlet?  Without his fucking umlaut, milord.

So it’s all good, right?  He’s got the toughest gang in Stonevelt to protect him from groups like the shower-haunting ‘Joy Boys’ (there’s plenty of references to gay sex in this book; it’s not that 30’s-era Warner Brothers), a pass to go outside and live like a free man for a few hours whenever he wants, and a brand new name that he loves.

And there’s just one little catch, that they can’t tell him about until he’s already part of the group, and can’t safely back out–he has to participate in a bank robbery.  In the town the prison is in, likewise named Stonevelt.   A bank heist.  In a Donald Westlake novel.  What could possibly go wrong?

And it’s not just one bank–the gang plans to hit two the same night, then go back to their cells–the literally perfect crime.   Directly across the street from each other, one a traditional stone-pillared temple to Mammon, the other a modern glass and steel affair.  Their underground vaults are adjacently situated, separated by a single wall, which the tunnel gang plans to breach with–get this–a military laser.   That they’re going to steal from the nearby army base.

(Yes of course there’s a nearby base, it’s a comic caper–there could be a submarine docking station if the story demanded it.   And of course the army had easily portable user-friendly lasers stored at rural upstate New York bases, that could melt through steel bank vaults.  In the early 70’s.  Let us now concede that the science fiction geek in Donald E. Westlake never did quite completely die out.)

Now Harry has already proven himself to them by pulling a little ‘sting’ in town, as they all do from time to time, but what he did not tell them is that he got the money through his own specialty–practical jokery.  He put up a sign on one of the banks saying that the slot through which local businessmen can deposit their daily proceeds after banking hours is out of order, and late-night depositors can use the provided bin, which normally is used for milk bottles, that he nabbed from a nearby house.

He gets one sucker, from a local bar, but that’s all he needs.  It’s enough to pay his share of the electric bill for the tunnel lights and stuff, and establish his street cred with the boys, and in future he can just use his own personal savings and say that he stole them.  But you can’t fake a bank robbery, and you can’t get out of it through the application of practical joke expertise.  Can you?

Now I hadn’t planned to make this a two-parter, and it’s a bit short for a Part 1, but seems like a good spot for a break, and I haven’t posted anything in almost ten days.   And there’s a lot of story packed into this not terribly long book, and I’ve done enough 6,000+ word articles already.  So I’m going to post this, then tunnel my way out of the office, and be free from self-imposed deadlines for a little while, before returning to my cell to write Part 2.

By the way, do any of you happen to have Prince Albert in a can?  Well for the love of God, don’t eat him, he died in 1861!

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

24 responses to “Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

  1. Adi Kiescher

    Off topic: I just looked up the book in Amazon, they are asking for more than 2000 Euros in three different offers, no personal signature or anything special. As I was still missing this one, I ordered the one for 5 Euros. Does anybody understand?

    • Does anyone understand the pricing whims of Amazon sellers?

      It truly stinks that this one is out of print. There’s no ebook, which doesn’t help. Plenty of loose copies floating around here in America, and several English language editions. Let’s look at the American first edition–on Amazon US right now you can get “Used–Good” for $2.93 with $3.99 shipping from ‘owlsbooks’, or at the other extreme you can get “Used–Good” for $1,108.75 with $3.99 shipping from the somewhat inaptly named ‘Wisepenny’. More like ‘Wiseguy’, you ask me. There’s always gotta be one.

      You can also get “Used–Very Good” from various sellers, for somewhere around 30-40 bucks. What makes it ‘very good’ instead of just ‘good’? It’s not like rare comic book and magazine sellers, or rare coin dealers (shades of Billy Lebatard) all of whom have to adhere to pretty tight and universally agreed-upon standards when listing the condition of their wares.

      And I think standards are likewise tighter when it comes to antiquarian booksellers, but these books don’t quite qualify as antiques, at least not yet. Nobody’s ever showing up on Antiques Roadshow with a first edition of Help I Am Being Held Prisoner. Would we want that to happen? What we want, and what Westlake wanted, is for the books themselves–the words he wrote–to live on for as long as there are people to read them. Or space aliens with a sense of humor.

      Ray Garraty, a truly serious book collector (you have no idea) swears by eBay. Sellers there may overcharge as well, but because listings expire, and because of the overall auction environment, you can get much better deals–but it’s also less convenient and more time-consuming to search. Still often worth it. Overseas shipping can be harder to arrange, though.

      Since my correspondence with Ray began, due to this blog, I have acted as eBay intermiediary and procurer for the book-addicted Mr. Garraty on many an occasion. I owe many of my own rarer first editions to his expertise, and in the process I’ve also read many books I’d have otherwise been unaware of entirely. I’ve also learned that shipping books to Russia is a pain in the ass (and really expensive, not that I’m paying), but it’s been worth the trouble.

      And I’ve learned just how chaotic and unpredictable pricing for editions of books printed in our lifetimes can be. And the only explanation that can ever be given is that some people are very greedy, and others are extremely gullible. If you list a whole lot of books you obtained cheaply at estate sales and such for very high prices, you only need a handful of suckers with more money than brains to score big, and you spend a lot less time boxing and shipping books. It’s a percentage game. And a con game as well.

      I’d say you made a good buy. But as a man I used to work with here at the library used to say “A book is not forever.” Books that are read often, as books ought to be, wear out, and must needs be replaced. If there are no new editions, and no electronic editions, the remaining copies will get more and more expensive, as demand outstrips supply.

      Westlake wrote a lot of books. It’s hard to have physical editions of all of them in print at all time. But I see no excuse for every novel he ever wrote under his own name not being available electronically. And certainly not a book like this. Who Stole Sassi Manoon? would be no great loss, I suppose, but I don’t think anybody’s charging a thousand smackers for that one yet. 😉

      • Oh, and Adi–if you have not read this one, as it seems you have not, I would humbly advise you hold off reading Part 2 of this review until you’ve gotten around to it. You know about me and plot synopses.

  2. I read my copy (the same as the one pictured top left) courtesy of good old-fashioned interlibrary loan. (My local library doesn’t have much, but they can get pretty much anything from pretty much any other library in the state — and sometimes out of state, if my need is particularly obscure — in a matter of days. But I digress. As usual.) I liked this one quite a bit. Maybe Künt (with an umlaut) is somehow secretly on Dortmunder’s crew, silently sabotaging the mastermind’s best-laid plans. Or maybe they just have the same God (they do).

    Stonevelt is (of course) a letter off from Stoneveldt, the prison that gave Parker so much trouble many years later. I can’t remember if that one was also in Monequois, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    In keeping with with our discussions of profanity and frank sexual language, HIABHP seems to exist in a transitional phase, full of awkward conversations about people having “intercourse” (which somehow fits with the awkward nature of of character) but also indulging in a few “screws” and “fucks” — as well as a short, elegant, dirty, profanity-free turn of phrase that comes later in the book (we can get to that next time).

    The pranks themselves are interesting in that Künt (with an umlaut) seems to derive no pleasure at all from them. He doesn’t laugh at his own tricks or even watch them play out. He just does them because he (seemingly) has no choice. It feels like a chillingly accurate depiction of compulsion or addiction.

    Looking forward to part two. This one has a particularly ingenious ending.

    • Working at a library, I’ve only made use of interlibrary loan once for the purposes of this blog–it being as close to flat-out impossible as makes no never mind to find an affordable copy of Philip–but it’s a great resource. A bit risky for the books themselves, I’ve always thought. Some do get lost in the mail, and then turn up years later, the post office having relocated them in some obscure manner. This is why, in spite of my preference for physical editions, I strongly approve of ebooks. Preserve books in as many formats as possible. You can’t be too careful.

      Westlake was still experimenting with this comic caper thing, and you can definitely see him playing with the ideas he’d worked out for Dortmunder, seeing what else can be done with them. The characters in this book are excellent, each one a distinctive creation, but they don’t have quite the same lasting resonance as the Dortmunder ensemble. They’re made for a single story, not a series of them.

      Nice catch, about Stoneveldt–I’ve only read Breakout once to date–it was–let’s see–the third Westlake novel I ever read. The library has Flashfire, Firebreak, and Breakout, and no other Starks at all. So that’s where I started, just about exactly four years ago. And memory, as any Westlake reader should know, is a most unreliable tool.

      I was noticing the same thing about the language. It’s interesting that he started experimenting with profanity with the Coes (one of his most dispensable pseudonyms that he not long afterwards dispensed with), and then Stark, and then under his own name, and finally coming out of the mouth of his most beloved character (I don’t think we can say Parker is beloved, somehow). Testing the waters. But again, the publishing field was changing. It was starting to be expected, and how credible are these fierce yet fetching felons going to be if they don’t even know how to swear?

      I think Harry gets some satisfaction out of a well-played joke–he appreciates a skillful gag employed by someone else as well. Westlake isn’t saying practical jokes are evil. Merely that those who have the talent for them need to use their power wisely, and be able to exercise restraint. The goal should be shared laughter between friends, but please note–he’s got no friends. Not yet, anyway.

      There is a movie all about practical jokers, btw, and a damn good one too–

      Watch it.


      • I’ve seen it. I like how the jokes in it are mostly background color and largely go unremarked upon — until the final prank that settles the love triangle once and for all.

        • The point in both stories is the same, and has perhaps been best expressed by a gent named Saul of Tarsus.

          When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

          You think maybe he was a practical joker too? That story about the road to Damascus sounds fishy to me. Well, maybe that was somebody else’s joke. 😉

  3. Anthony

    LOVED this book. I was so young when I read it the first time it was literally my introduction to what we nowadays call the “C-word.” (Deliverance, in turn, introduced me to the word pussy in its non-feline sense. Ah, those noble days of youthful innocence).

    I have one gripe about this book, which bothered me when I first read it and still does today. Harry is discovered putting Saran Wrap on a toilet by one of the gang and talks his way out of it by claiming he was taking the wrap OFF. No way! To put Saran Wrap on a toilet you have to have the Saran Wrap box – it is NOT possible to carry unrolled plastic wrap any distance and not have it become an irretrievably congealed mess. I can suspend my disbelief about a tunnel and a military laser, but I can’t do it for this. Weird thing to be bothered with, I know, but there it is.

    • A fair objection, but he could have had the roll–not the box–concealed under a shirt or jacket, and something to cut it with as well. Or maybe he has some secret saran wrap technique, known only to the elite practical jokers. Or maybe Westlake just figured most people wouldn’t be sharp enough to notice.

      I didn’t. :\

      • It’s possible that the prankster could have left the box next to the toilet — though come to think of it, a Saran wrap box would be serious contraband in a prison, as the jagged metal strip used to tear the plastic could be fashioned into a serious weapon.

        • Originally, he was talking about his doing this in school, and these classmates caught him in the bathroom, and he talked his way out of it, saying he’d nearly been pranked himself.

          But he does it at Stonevelt as well (nobody catches him there, that I recall). And it is a bit hard to see how he got his hands on saran wrap, let alone something to cut it with, but honestly–guys–they steal a portable laser from a military base. There’s an easily portable laser you can melt bank vaults with, and it’s just lying there in a box in a Quonset Hut in the arse-end of New York State, right by the Canadian border. In the early 70’s. Realism was not the goal here. I know I keep saying that, but it bears repeating.

          (editing) Oh damn, forgot–he can go outside and shop anytime he wants–where else would he get stuff like itching powder, or exploding cigarettes? The tunnel gang can smuggle damned near anything into the prison. In point of fact, during the furor over the recent escape from the real-world Dannemora, it came out that even without a tunnel, there’s been an active smuggling ring in that prison, aided and abetted by guards. They caught somebody hoisting contraband up the side of the prison wall! On camera! Shameless! And more Westlake-ian than Westlake himself would ever have dared to be.

          So there’s nothing that hard to buy here (except the laser), though you’d think his fellow gang members would realize that whoever is pulling these pranks must be one of them, but I think Westlake credibly suggests their minds are too occupied with the heist, and it’s established that Harry has a genius for going undetected in his pranking. One of the tasty little ironies in the book is that aside from the mannequin on the Expressway, he’s only ever punished for things he didn’t do.

          • Anthony

            Like I said – it is a weird thing for me to have focused on given – well, everything discussed above. I don’t justify it bugging me, and it does not lessen the book in any way. Just noting that it always bugged me.

            Compared to real worries – Global warming, European refugee crisis, Trump – nothing to see here folks.

            • I am often bugged by even more trivial details nobody should give a holy damn about. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have mentioned that the incident where he was nearly caught saran-wrapping the toilet was in school, not at the prison. 🙂

  4. Ray Garraty

    Got my copy quite cheap off a British ebayer a couple of years ago. Shame I still haven’t read it. I think my copy was inscribed, but not by Westlake, but by some guy who made this book a present to his gal. Romantic, huh?

    • The romantic sub-plot in this book is actually pretty good, though ‘The Girl’ isn’t directly involved with the action of the book. She’s there to provide perspective. And other things. Maybe she reminded the former owner of his sweetheart. I wonder how the offering was received?

      • Ray Garraty

        Interesting how after close to 20 years of writing without using an explicit word, Westlake in two novels in a row turned his attention to explicit language. And if in BM it’s just a few words, then in Prisoner it’s the main plot concept.

        • There’s some profanity in this one, but it’s not really central to the story. I wouldn’t say it was central to any of his books. Actually, I’m not sure it’s central to James Joyce or Henry Miller. They just use a lot more of it. 😉

          • Ray Garraty

            I meant not the quantity of profanities, but that a profane word is the key starting plot point in this one. It is unusual, after 20 years of never using one. ))

            • Oh, THAT word. Technically, it never does appear in the book. Just a name that some people mispronounce as if it was that word. I suspect Westlake could have pulled that gag much sooner and gotten away with it. But yes, your point is well taken.

  5. I wonder sometimes how often you people spot my bonehead errors, and just fail to mention them in the comments section, figuring ol’ Fred will just find them anyway, and edit them out. If so, that’s awfully nice of you, but by all means pipe up. It’s not like I’m under any illusions as to my mental acuity. Other than the illusion that I have any.

    Well, it happened again. I incorrectly stated that the town Stonevelt Prison is in is named Monequois (the name of the town is stated rarely in the book), and then realized the town is named Stonevelt as well (because it’s based on a prison popularly known as Dannemora, which is located inside a town of the same name, and I knew that already), and then I figured I must have at least read the name Monequois in there somewhere so it must be nearby, but I can’t find it, and there’s no Google books version I can search, so I edited out all mention of Monequois. So no, you didn’t imagine it. I apparently did. :\

  6. Unless I’m missing something, there’s no fun to be made of “Don Westlake”, so I wonder where his recurring theme of “names that are hell to live with” comes from. (Peter Abbot, Harry Künt, Ernie Volpinex, etc.)

    By the way, I’ve read this book more than once, and I only just now realized that “Harry” makes it even worse.

    • You noticed that too, huh? But I guess any name can be hell to live with–and make you the butt of jokes when you’re young. “Hey Donald Duck, jumped in any western lakes lately?” Nobody ever made fun of your name? I had my share of troubles with my own, and I don’t mean Fred Fitch.

      An individual with the kind of identity issues Westlake clearly had would dream of somehow becoming somebody else–something as simple as a name change might do the trick. And you’ll note, he changed his name a lot when he was working.

      And I had not thought of the Harry Kunt thing. I guess in the early 70’s, writing a book for a general audience, you’d want to keep that strictly subtextual.

      • Isaac Asimov did have that problem: a name that was foreign-looking, and prone to being misspelled and mispronounced. He wrote about that in a number of his autobiographical pieces, but as far as I know only once in a story: here.

        • David Gerrold and Larry Niven wrote a novel called The Flying Sorcerers, about an earth anthropologist who lands on a planet inhabited by low-tech people with a highly sophisticated shamanistic culture, and all the comic misunderstandings that follow. He has one of those universal translator thingies, but it doesn’t work as smoothly as it does in most stories of this type.

          His name translates as ‘Purple’ in the language of the natives. He can’t figure out why, and then he realizes–“As A Mauve.” He gets a kick out of his computer making a pun. So did I. But I don’t know how Isaac felt about it. Actually, what I’d really like to know is how he felt about an upcoming Westlake novel. Maybe I’ll do some research into that. But to all reports, he was never shy about laughing at himself. Thanks for the link.

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