Category Archives: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Advance Publicity: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner–back in print! (next year)

 

Got the word from Charles Ardai, just a few weeks ago–he read my piece on what a Westlake Library of America edition might look like, and this book was high on my list of criminally out of print Westlake crime.   It’s not being released until February 13th, 2018 (not a Friday, I’m disappointed to say), but Amazon already has a page up for it, so I’m not giving away any trade secrets here.  Behold! Cover art!

Yes, of course I bitched and moaned to Ardai about how The Girl in this book is a blonde, but seems like the artist wanted a brunette, and I shall privately entertain my own dirty-minded suspicions as to why that was.  The spirit of Robert E. McGinnis lives on, as indeed does McGinnis himself, but this isn’t his handiwork.  This version of the not-too-maidenly Marian is suitably zaftig, and that’s what really matters, right?  That and getting one of Westlake’s best Nephew Books back in print–and not just as an ebook.  (Though the nice thing about ebooks is that once you’ve got something digitized, it tends to stick around.)

In early 2019, Hard Case is planning to come out with a new edition of Brothers Keepers, and there are subsequent reprints in the works.

I must say, it’s getting a bit spooky how as soon as we here express our desire for a particular Westlake book to be reprinted, Hard Case turns out to already be on the case.

(C’mon, Adios Scheherazade! Or is that too hard a case even for them?)

 

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Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Part 2

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The dinner party itself was a bit unreal.  Alice Dombey, wife of a convicted professional forger, produced an incredibly complex and tasty dinner (Gourmet was one of the magazines she subscribed to) for eight AWOL cons who sat around making polite conversation with one another.  Alice beamed genteelly at everybody, used her knife and fork as though it was an intricate skill she’d learned from a correspondence course, and actually extended her pinky when lifting her coffee cup.

At the other end of the scale, and the table, there was Billy Glinn, absentmindedly snapping chicken bones and crunching through his food as though he’d wind up by eating the plates.  Jerry Bogentrodder became silly and giddy in Marian’s presence, coming on with her in the style of a collegian who has drunk too much at his first beer party.  Max also came on with her, though both more subtly and more seriously; I was beginning to feel a bit ambivalent about that fellow.

As to the others, Phil and Joe spent most of the evening talking shop with one another: guns, alarms, lawyers, stolen goods.  And Eddie Troyn kept popping in and out of his Captain Robinson persona–never in quite far enough to call me Lieutenant, but in enough for me to recognize the genial authoritarian style.  And Bob Dombey, our host, was so clearly madly in love with his wife and his home, so patently proud of both, that the great warmth of his feeling filled the room with a kind of amber Dickensian glow.

Afterwards, Marian and I rode to her place in her Volkswagen, and she said “I keep thinking it has to be a put-on. I know you’re a practical joker, and this is a whole elaborate rib.  No way on Earth those people are crooks.”

“Oh, they’re crooks, all right,” I said.  I hadn’t mentioned the bank robbery, or the stings by which the others supported themselves, and though I was tempted now I once more refrained.  Even with Marian, I didn’t feel that trust could be one hundred per cent.

I am a straightforward man, with no crime on my conscience,
But I was accused of being a spy for China.
So life, you see, is never a very smooth business,
And now the present bristles with difficulties.

Ho Chi Minh, Prison Diary

It is good to remember that this is a book written by a man who had just recently fallen madly in love–again.  The dedication in the first edition reads “for Abby–the jentle jailer.” I’m tempted to say he was love[sic], but the intended misspelling was corrected for my Ballantine paperback reprint, and probably many other editions I have not seen.

So perhaps not so coincidentally, there is a sort of amber Dickensian glow about the whole enterprise, which Westlake tries to correct for a bit (as always in the Nephew books, if there’s no real danger, there’s no real laughs), by making it very clear these guys our hero is working with mainly have pretty violent pasts.  But since this is a comic caper, we don’t see them be violent, we merely hear about various acts of physical mayhem they have previously perpetrated.

You get a hint of the soon-to-debut Tiny Bulcher in Jerry Bogentrodder and even more in the monstrous Billy Glinn (who likes to tell blood-curdling stories about the unhappy fates of people who annoyed him in some way)–maybe Westlake made Tiny by combining the two into one fine Fomorian felon.  Waste not, want not.

Phil Giffin, by contrast, is very much like Dortmunder, as we first met him coming out of prison in The Hot Rock–not the demoralized sad sack we saw later, but a tough as nails planner.  In many ways, Phil is the the most formidable member of the gang, but repeatedly frustrated by what seems like bad luck.   Even though he was the first to befriend Harry, Harry senses that Phil would likewise be the first to do Harry seriously bodily harm if he thought his new recruit was not strictly on the up and up.

But in many ways, the funniest and most frightening hard case in this gang is Eddie Troyn.   He’s the other identity puzzle of the book (the first being Harry, of course).  Eddie has such a large role in the middle of the book, that he even got his own cover, in the first Italian edition–

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Among the most misleading cover art Westlake ever got, but that is actually a scene from the book–maybe war novels were really big in Italia that year?   The next Italian cover (different imprint, same publisher, same title) was more pacific by far.

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Eddie’s shadowy military background makes him the ideal person to go into the nearby army base, Camp Quattatunk, and liberate the implausibly portable and powerful laser the gang somehow knows they have stored there.  He needs a second man, and Harry is elected, because he’s the only one who fits the other uniform they stole.  A stroke of ill fortune for him, but fortunate for us, this being a first-person narrative.

They enter the base on a bus that runs between the town and the base, using cheaply made fake military ID’s that the guards barely glance at–hearkening back to the lax security in The Green Eagle Score, and one assumes to Westlake’s own experience on real Air Force bases in the Mid-50’s.   Harry is playing a lieutenant, and Eddie is ‘Captain Robinson’, because, as he informs Eddie, there’s invariably a Captain Robinson at every military base in America.

Once inside the base, an increasingly disconcerted Harry begins to notice changes in Eddie’s behavior–he’s not playing Captain Robinson, he is Captain Robinson.  Merely putting on the uniform has triggered an identity switch.  He jokes with the younger men at the Officer’s Club, spinning various colorful military yarns, as if he’s been doing this all his life, which for all we know he was before he got sentenced to Stonevelt.

When Harry speaks to him in private, and forgets to address him according to his proper military rank, or at least ‘sir’, Eddie acts like he’s ready to clap Harry in the stockade if he doesn’t shape up.  Or possibly just shoot him.  Technically, if he tried to have Harry court-martialed, they’d both end up in the stockade.

The pretext for the visit is that ‘Captain Robinson’ is conducting an inspection, particularly of the quonset huts where military supplies are kept.   He’s been in and out of the base for a week now, has made lots of strategically placed friends, and he knows where everything is stored.   Various poison gases, plague germs, guns, all manner of ordinance, and of course the laser.  Which believe it or not, is in a 15×6″ box, plainly marked ‘Laser.’  Well, nobody’s asking you to believe it, lighten up.  Maybe the military found it at the Roswell crash site, and figured they’d store it in upstate New York, along with the Ark of the Covenant, and other assorted MacGuffins.

So they take a carton filled with one amazingly small laser, some extra guns, and a few hand grenades (‘useful materials’, Eddie calls them), and of course the sentry in front of the building wants to see a proper signed order for them to take this stuff, at which point Eddie pulls a gun on him, they tie him up, and let’s just say I hope security wasn’t this lax on our real bases back then, but I have this unpleasant feeling Westlake wasn’t entirely kidding.  It’s probably better now…..

They walk over to a closed and unattended gate, where some members of the gang equipped with wire cutters are supposed to meet them.  Only the gang is late.   Harry is all for dumping the swag, and catching the last bus out of Dodge, but Eddie–I’m sorry, Captain Robinson, sir!–tells him they will not abort the mission.  His exact words.  He says they’ll have to improvise.  By which he means using a hand grenade to blow a huge hole in the fence.   Wow, they really are useful materials.

Of course the explosion is noticed, and uniformed men come roaring up in a jeep–Captain Robinson (there’s no point putting in the quote marks anymore) tells them that armed radicals, probably Weathermen, have attacked the base, disabled a sentry, and quite possibly planted a bomb that could blow them all sky high.  He’s particularly upset about the sentry.  “If they’ve killed that man–” he says, emotion choking his manly voice.

The Captain somehow regains control of himself, and says he and the Lieutenant will have to commandeer the jeep to pursue the villains, while the other men go check on the sentry and look for the bomb.   He being the ranking officer present, they don’t argue.  And he and Harry drive right through the hole in the fence.

They meet the gang further on down the road–there was a snafu at the prison–an unexpected shakedown.   Harry recounts Eddie’s genius (he’s back to normal, or what passes for normal with Eddie), and Phil wants to know what they used to blow the hole in the gate.   When he finds out what, he turns a bit pale, and says Eddie should get rid of the hand grenades immediately.  At which point Eddie pulls the pin out of one and throws it to one side of the road they’re driving over.   He didn’t want a child to find it and injure himself, you see.

If they’d done a movie shortly after this book came out, do you think they could have gotten Henry Fonda to play Eddie?   He doesn’t match the physical description, but it would have been so cool.

So with all the necessary materials procured, the gang is ready to rob the banks–two of them, disguised as typewriter repairmen, will gain access to the modern bank on one side of the street just after it closes, and the gang will take control of it–then they’ll use the laser to drill through the wall of its vault to get to the other bank’s vault right next to it.   Piece o’ cake.   And Harry is desperately trying to find some way to make the cake inedible.

And it finally hits him–he can do what he knows how to do best.   He sneaks in before the heist, and plants improvised delayed-action stink bombs in the waste baskets.  By the time the job’s ready to start, the bank is in chaos, and the mission is scrubbed.  The other gang members are furious when they learn what happened, and in Harry’s presence, start talking about their own experiences with practical jokers, some of them surprisingly recent, and the general sentiment of the group is that no punishment could possibly be too severe.   Harry just tries to blend in.  It’ll be a miracle if he doesn’t have ulcers before this is over.

This brings us to Chapter 25 in this 49 chapter book, and with not much more than a hundred pages left, we still have to try to rob the bank several more times, solve the mystery of the repeated “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” message gags that Harry is not pulling (but keeps getting the blame for anyway), and meet the delightful Marian James, who is The Girl in this book.  And about time, too.

Of the ten versions of The Girl we meet in the ten Nephew books, I’d put her squarely in the top three, alongside that bohemian raven-tressed reckless driver, Chloe Shapiro, from The Fugitive Pigeon, and that blonde busty put-down artist, Gertie Divine, The Body Secular, from God Save the Mark.  Never the same Girl twice.  One of the more diverting aspects of these books.

Harry meets her at a party he goes to with Max, held at the house of a local divorcee Max is hooking up with.  She’s a history teacher, blonde, amply-proportioned, elfin-faced, and full of laughter, much of it directed at Harry, who she takes an instant liking to. Harry likes her just as much, but is too afraid of saying the wrong thing to say any of the right things, and he’s well on the way to screwing up his chances with her.

Only one of the prison guards, Fred Stoon, turns out to be at the party, so Harry has to suddenly grab and kiss Marian, so as not to be recognized–an old gag, but it works for the purposes of fast-tracking their romance, as does Harry spilling out his heart to her at her apartment, explaining about his practical jokes, the name thing, the prison sentence, the tunnel, and everything (except the bank robbery).

She’s a smart, good-hearted, humorous girl, with a fine sense of the absurd, and they’re both quite drunk by this point, and they wake up next morning in bed, and now Harry has a girlfriend.  Who he has to leave post-haste, because it’s almost dawn.  It’s times like these I devoutly wish life were like a Westlake Nephew book.  Perhaps it is for some.

She sat up and switched on the bedside lamp.  Squinting at me, she said, “I’ve known some weird guys, Harry, but you’re the winner.  I’ve had them wake up and say, ‘I’ve got to get back to my wife,’ ‘I’ve got to catch a plane,’ ‘I’ve got to go to Mass.’  But I never in my life heard anybody say they had to go back to prison.

Given that Marian’s role in the book is not that big, she’s probably too big a star now (fame-wise, I mean) to be cast in the movie version that will never happen, but–

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I’m just saying.

Amazingly, Harry’s already been set-up with two other women since he joined the tunnel gang (I mentioned this book is very plot-heavy), and it was hopeless both times.  And he just meets this girl at a party he got dragged to, and they click.  So he finds true love and gets laid (repeatedly), well before the book is over–previously, the only nephew to achieve this before the book ended was Eugene Raxford of The Spy in the Ointment, and he and Angela Ten Eyck were an item before the book started. Westlake messing around with the formula again.

But the course of true love never did run smooth, particularly when one of the lovers is serving five to fifteen in the joint.  Harry gets called back in to see Warden Gadmore, only this time the meeting is on the roof of the prison, where somebody has etched “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” in the new-fallen snow.  Guess who the Warden thinks did it?  You’d think the same thing in his place, admit it.

But see, Harry thought that Fred Stoon had recognized him at the party, and realizing that instead he’s once more being accused of something he didn’t do, he makes a little too free, asks the Warden (who is forgetting the umlaut in his name) how he’d like it if Harry called him Warden Gadabout, and that does not go over well.   It’s a prison.  He’s a convict. There’s no presumption of innocence unless the authorities feel like presuming it.  Harry gets clapped into solitary confinement for a few days, and has to see a prison shrink.

The warden then relents, and let’s him out, but takes him off gymnasium duty for two weeks, which is the only way Harry can access the  tunnel.  He’s also being given a new cellmate, Andy Butler, the elderly prison gardener, a very long-term resident who looks and behaves like Santa Claus in a prison uniform, and in fact he plays Santa in the prison’s Christmas Pageant every year.  Like Harry’s previous cellmate, Andy’s soon going to get the old heave-ho into the outside world, having spent most of his life behind bars, and having no way to support himself once he’s out there–all his friends are dead, or in prison with him.  Compassionate release, they call it.

Now not for the first time or the last, I note a sly little dig at a more famous writer.   Alice Dombey, wife of Bob, wants to make Harry’s lonesome Christmas a little more bearable.

Then Bob Dombey came around in the afternoon with two Christmas presents for me.  His wife, Alice, the reader, whom I had not as yet met, was making Christmas dinner for the boys, which of course I wasn’t going to be able to attend, so Bob had smuggled in a piece of fruitcake for me.  That made me feel both better and worse.  Bob also had a present for me from Alice, and it turned out to be a copy of Mailer’s Armies of the Night.  Holy Christ, the woman really was a reader!

So I spent a part of the day immersed in a writing style that combines the torturousness of Henry James with the colloquialness of Rocky Graziano, until Max showed up with a message and a present, both from Marian.  The message was that she’d be waiting for me when I got out of prison, which I suppose ws a pretty funny line under the circumstances, and the present was another book; The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh.  That was very funny under the circumstances, and more fun to read than the other.  But too short.

So Harry misses the next bank shot, which manages to get fouled up without his help.  But that just means he’s got to participate in the next attempt, and the attempt after that, and so on.  The same plan, over and over, until it works.  Phil simply will not give up on his vision of robbing two banks in one night.  So Harry will have to reach down deep into his practical joker’s bag of tricks to keep it from happening.  Over and over and over.  At one point, Phil says “Sometimes, I think God doesn’t want us to rob that fucking bank.”  Oh he does, Phil.  He really does.  But not before he’s ready.  You’ll have to earn it, like Dortmunder did.

And there’s yet another “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” message.  Harry’s on double secret probation now (oooh, John Vernon as Warden Gadmore, perfection, except he’s dead now–details, details).  If there’s just one more incident, Harry’s going to lose all privileges, including that most enviable privilege of bedding down with Marian James when he’s supposed to be paying his debt to society.

Then again, he’d get out of having to do the bank robbery, but if the tunnel gang finds out why he’s the prime suspect in the practical jokes, they’ll put two and two together–it’ll come out “Kill Harry Kunt,” and they won’t even remember the umlaut.  Maybe they’ll bury him with it.

Finally, Harry’s tricks run out, along with his luck, and the bank robbery happens.   And it turns out to be a bit of a dud.  They get the money from Fiduciary Federal (the modern bank), but not Western National (the imposing structure with the pillars).  The laser melts the layer of steel separating the two underground vaults, but there’s also a lot of reinforced concrete, and lasers aren’t so good with that.  It’s a valiant little implausible military laser, and it does its best, but too much has been asked of it.  Eddie darkly mutters that if he’d been allowed to keep those hand grenades…..

Would you believe at one point while they’re working on the vault wall, the bank staff (who have phoned their loved ones to say they’re working late on an audit) ask if they can get take-out food from a local restaurant?   And not just any restaurant, make sure it’s from Durkey’s because that luncheonette across the street is terrible.  Well, if you’ve read any Dortmunder novels, you probably would believe that, yeah.

So they get about nine thousand apiece, which is enough for Phil to at least feel like he’s beaten the jinx.   They can retire with dignity from the field of plunder, but there’s a general feeling amongst the gang that while crime may pay, it doesn’t pay nearly well enough to justify all that hard work, and there must be a less frustrating way to make a living.  The fact is, they’ve set up their own unauthorized halfway house, and by admittedly very gradual degrees, it’s reforming them.

So Harry has gotten past the one thing he was most afraid of–he performed well under pressure, even though he tells us that inside his head he was going “EEEEEE!!!” the entire time, and in a much larger font too.

So now he just has to make sure he stays on gym duty, and he can wait out the next few years, dating Marian to his heart’s content (among various other bodily organs–hey, what happens if she gets knocked up while he’s locked up?  oh never mind.), and then settle down with her.  You all know it’s not going to be that easy, right?

There’s another “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner”, and this one’s a real doozy–it’s on the paper used to wrap the communion hosts.  The prison Chaplain, Father Flynn, found it.   Father Flynn is not a forgiving man.  No, he does not care to be told that attitude is inconsistent with his beliefs.  Warden Gadmore, his patience wearing thin, removes Harry’s privileges once more, and now Harry comes to a stark realization, and yes the pun is intentional.

The month between Wednesday, April 27 and Friday, May 27 was the most horrible month in my life.  In the first place, I was in prison.

Well, I hadn’t been before.   I’d been a visitor, a roomer, hardly a prisoner.   But starting the twenty-seventh of April, I was a prisoner, and no mistake.

What does a prisoner do?  He gets up at seven-thirty in the morning and cleans his area.  He eats breakfast.  He exercises for an hour on the yard and spends the rest of the morning in his cell.  He eats lunch.  He exercises an hour on the yard and spends the rest of the afternoon in his cell.  He eats dinner.  He spends the rest of the evening in his cell.  He goes to bed.  Much later, he goes to sleep.

What else does a prisoner do?  Once a week he gets permission to go to the library and get three books.  If he has full privileges  he works at a job somewhere in the prison, but if he only has partial privileges he at least gets to wander around much of the prison area during the day and he gets to see a movie once a week, and he gets to sit down in the library and read a magazine.  But if he has no privileges he sits in his cell and tries to read his three books a week very, very slowly.  No movies, no wandering around, no job, no nothing.

It is all extremely boring.  Boredom is a horrible punishment, just about the grimmest long-term thing you can do to somebody.  Boredom is very boring.  It’s very bad.  I don’t know how to establish this point without becoming boring, and God knows I don’t want to do that.

See, you don’t know what freedom really is until you don’t have it anymore.  Westlake himself knew that full well, having spent a few days in jail after stealing a microscope from a college lab, more or less as a prank.  He had a hard time understanding how people could spend years, decades of their lives in confinement, and not lose themselves.  Many do, of course.  Then we let them out.  Good plan.

Many of us strangely choose to live lives almost as constrained and predictable as those of many real prisoners (with considerably less risk of being raped, or stabbed), but the difference is, we choose those lives.  And we could, if we so willed, choose different ones.  Prison removes the choice from life.  And life without choice, without freedom, isn’t life at all (meaning that one of the most bitterly divisive political controversies of the past four decades is based on a hopeless contradiction in terms, but I’m not dumb enough to get any deeper into that minefield).

And in choosing this moment in this comical yet compassionate work to express that brief moment of inner torment he himself had experienced, Westlake was, knowingly or not, echoing a long chain of protest poetry stretching across the centuries of history his Irish cousins had undergone, and were undergoing even as he wrote this, though the language he used was far from poetic, since his hero is no poet.  Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Brendan (and possibly Dominic) Behan’s The Auld Triangle.  Francie Brolly’s H-Block Song.   And this, of course.   I wonder if he knew that last one?  The album that particular recording made its debut on came out the year before this book.

And yeah, he was probably thinking more about Ho Chi Minh, Mandela, and most of all all those crooks that wrote him letters from prison, and were reading Richard Stark novels like they were how-to manuals.  But it’s all the same thing, down deep.  It’s all the same ancient refrain, keening away in every captive heart, and we need to listen to it more.  Pity the soul that’s not free (that’s from Fraggle Rock, they can’t all be Irish rebel songs).

A month of hell passes, and there are no further messages.   Seemingly proving Harry’s guilt.   He’s summoned back to the Warden’s office, and it’s bad.  Really bad.  His sentence could be lengthened.  There’s some ‘good Catholic boys’ in the prison Father Flynn has incited to go after him in vengeance for his alleged sacrilege.  And the Warden won’t be able to cover up his past history any longer, meaning the tunnel gang will, at the very least, withdraw their protection.  Marian will have to forget about him.

Harry’s life is passing before his eyes, and then he sees something out the window of the Warden’s office–and what passes from his lips then is the oldest cliche in the history of the mystery genre, and the narrative flips back to comedy, but not farce this time–high comedy, I think you’d call it.  And that’s all I’m going to tell you.   I’m playing fair here–the clues are present.  But rather than trying to guess, why not read the book?

This book ought to be in print, even if it’s only in ebook form.  I don’t know why it isn’t; that’s somebody else’s department.  I would certainly rank it among his ten best comic novels that don’t feature Dortmunder & Co.  It’s interesting in that it’s set in a small upstate New York town, much like the ones Westlake grew up in, and he writes with easy familiarity of life there.   And with a certain clear-eyed fondness that makes me think he sometimes wondered what his life would have been like if he’d remained there.  But part of him always did, I guess.

At one point in the book, Marian shows Harry another book, that she thinks contains some of the answers to the riddle of his identity crisis.  The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology by Paul Radin.  It’s a real book; I’ve got a copy of it in front of me.  It’s a classic in its field–a bit dry and academic at points–but Marian, with her gift of laughter, makes it sound downright riveting–and who is The Trickster, anyway?

He was both creator and destroyer, both good and evil, both helpful and harmful, and by the end of the cycle he had outgrown his pranks and gone to work to make the Earth a useful place for mankind.  “The Trickster is the undifferentiated form,” Marian told me, after I’d read the book.  “He doesn’t know who or what he is, or what his purpose is.  He gets into a fight with his arm because he doesn’t realize it’s part of him.  He wanders and gets into trouble because he doesn’t have any goal.  At the end, he matures into self-awareness and finds out he’s supposed to help human beings, that’s why he was sent to earth.  I think maybe you were like that, all practical jokers are like that.  They don’t know who they are yet, it’s a case of arrested development.”

And that’s all well and good, but if you happened to see that especially woebegone manifestation of The Trickster named John Dortmunder, after the events of his next adventure, you’d be most ill-advised to bring it up.  He’d probably punch you right in the nose.  Thing about Tricksters is, they often get tricked.  And the one who tricks him this time could be accused of many things, but arrested development isn’t one of them.

PS: One last run of covers, from around the world (all but one of the covers you see here were snipped from the Official Westlake Blog)–some nice ones for this book.   Its prison theme clearly struck a responsive chord.   Of course it did.

The artist for the Swedish edition, you will note, did his own jesterly take on the original cover art–not sure which I like best:

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Czechoslovakia (it was still called that then) and Denmark.  The Danish artist emphasizes the darker side of the book, the Czech is more satiric, as perhaps he or she had to be at the time, if life were not to imitate art:

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And finally the German cover art, which somehow manages to be even more misleading than the first Italian edition.

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I would have thought for sure they’d change Harry’s last name for that edition.   Well, they remembered the umlaut.  That’s what matters.

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

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

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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 word ‘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 has 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)

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