Since crime fiction is about, well, crime, it makes sense that the topic of prison would come up in any discussion about the genre. And one of the developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the decades is that there is some solid discussion of the effects of being imprisoned. There are also questions raised about whether the threat of prison is really a deterrent. Certainly questions about prison have been around for a very long time and we do see mentions of prison in Golden Age crime fiction. But it’s become a real topic of interest in more recent crime fiction. There are a lot of examples, and this one post only gives me space for a few, but hopefully these will suffice to show you what I mean.
Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn is the widow of Saskatchewan politician Ian Kilbourn, who was murdered one night when he stopped to help a young couple who were having car trouble. When he refused to take them to a party they wanted to attend, the young man Kevin Tarpley murdered him. In A Colder Kind of Death, Tarpley is shot while he’s in the exercise yard of the prison where he’s been remanded. As if that isn’t enough of a shock to Kilbourn, she then receives a letter and a newspaper clipping that Tarpley sent her just before he was murdered. From the letter and from what she learns from the media, it seems that Tarpley was a ‘model prisoner’ who found religion while he was behind bars. Then, Tarpley’s wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is herself killed. Now suspicion falls on Joanne Kilbourn, who has a very strong motive in both cases. Partly to clear her name and partly to deal with her own continuing sense of loss and grief, Kilbourn looks into both murders. She finds that the reality of Tarpley’s prison life was more complicated than just a man who’d ‘found God.’ Prison chaplain Paschal Temple tells her that at first, Tarpley simply attended chapel events so that he’d get an earlier parole. But in other conversations, he admitted having lied about something and began to seem worried about his eternal fate because of his lies. It’s that fact that proves the most salient as Kilbourn works to find out who killed Tarpley and his wife. The answer also leads her to more truths about her husband’s murder.
In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, we meet Jack McGuane who, with his wife Melissa, has adopted a baby girl Angelina. The couple’s happiness is complete until they get the shocking news that Angelina’s biological father Garrett Moreland never relinquished his parental rights and now wants to exercise them. At first the McGuanes believe that it’s all a terrible mixup that will be resolved. But then, Garrett’s powerful father, Judge John Moreland, visits the McGuanes and more or less tries to bribe them to go along with Garrett’s wishes and give up the child. When they refuse, Moreland uses the full force of his legal authority and orders them to relinquish custody of Angelina within three weeks. The McGuanes are not willing to do this, and resolve to do whatever it takes to keep Angelina. ‘Whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either of them could have imagined. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the last section of this novel includes McGuane’s depiction of prison life:
‘I’m in the general population. The guards protect me because they…are sympathetic. I have my own cell with a bed, a washstand and toilet, books, and this laptop computer. There are books in the library and decent medical care. I am pleasant but not friendly with all the rest of the population. The only time I see the truly dangerous inmates is across the room at mealtimes.’
McGuane then goes on to reflect on what happens in the novel and on the fact that anyone is capable of anything and that once a person ‘crosses the line’ it gets easier to do things one wouldn’t have considered:
‘Which is why I’m here and why I should be.’
It’s an interesting look at imprisonment as a tool for social and personal discipline.
Wendy James’ Out of the Silence gives a very different look at prison, although the notions of reform and reflection are present. In that novel, we follow the life of Maggie Heffernan, born and raised in Victoria, who was imprisoned in 1900 for the murder of her infant son. The story is based on a real-life case, but takes a fictional look at the circumstances that led to her trial and imprisonment. In the novel, Maggie meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy, who seems to be in love with her too. They get engaged (although not publicly) and then Hardy leaves for work in New South Wales. When Maggie becomes pregnant, she writes to Jack about it, but he doesn’t respond. At first, she tells herself that he will respond when he can and besides, she has the very real problem of finding a new place to live, since she doubts her family will accept her living with them. She moves to Melbourne where she continues to search for Jack and where she gives birth to their son. Shortly after the baby is born, Maggie finally finds Jack, who says that she’s crazy and pretends not to even know her. Distraught, Maggie goes looking for lodging and is turned away from six different places. That’s when the baby’s death occurs. Maggie is arrested, tried and imprisoned, but soon enough, women’s suffrage activist Vida Goldstein takes an interest in the case and she and her friend Elizabeth Hamilton begin to work for Maggie’s release. And as we learn the circumstances of the baby’s death, we see why there is so much sympathy for Maggie. It’s a real example of the way society’s limitations and views of women at that time placed many women in terrible positions. The women’s prison to which Maggie is remanded is not cruel in the sense of featuring torture or forced feedings or some of the other barbarities some prisoners have known. It’s designed to help the prisoners do useful work, embrace religion and basically repent. At the same time, the assumptions made about the women who are there show the institutionalised sexism of the times.
Jøern Lier Horst’s Dregs also takes a look at the purpose of prison and its effects. Stavern, Norway police inspector William Wisting and his team investigate when a left foot, encased in a shoe, is washed up on the shore. The team is just beginning to look into the matter when another foot is discovered. Then another appears. As the case continues, the team learns that these macabre findings may be related to the disappearances of several people from a nearby retirement home. As that angle is explored, we learn that the old men who have disappeared had another connection going back to the post-World War II years, so one possible explanation for the disappearances may lie in the past. In the meantime, Wisting’s journalist daughter Line is working on a feature story about former prison inmates who have been released. Her main question is whether imprisonment serves any purpose. She even suspects that imprisonment may do more harm than good, and she wants to tell the stories of people who have been there. A few of her interviewees live not far from where her father lives, so Line stays with him while she’s conducting them. As she talks to her participants, we get the sense of how prison changes people. At one point, for instance, Line asks one of her interviewees,
‘Are you a better person now than before you went to prison?’…
‘No,’ he finally answered. ‘On the contrary.’
Line comes to really question the value of prison, and this forms an interesting sub-plot in this novel. The story Line is working on turns out to be related to the missing men and the discovery of the feet.
Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red tells the story of Connor Bligh, who has been imprisoned for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. At the time of the murders, everyone was convinced that Bligh was guilty and there is evidence against him. But there are also hints that he may be innocent. So when television journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of this case, she decides to pursue it. She is granted an interview with Bligh (who usually doesn’t agree to speak to visitors) and visits him in Rimutaka Prison:
‘The mass of buildings and acres of land are barricaded by a six-metre fence topped with barbed wire and razor blades.’
When she first meets him, Thorne believes that Bligh will be eager to have her take up his cause so he can get out of prison. But here is what he says:
‘I’ve got a shower and a TV in my room and I can go outside every day for exercise so I can walk further now than from one wall to the other. I’m deemed responsible enough to work in the gardens where I earn somewhere between a dollar fifty and two dollars an hour. That plus free board makes this a reasonable deal.’
At the same time, he also tells Thorne that he wants to get out of prison. Thorne tells him she’ll pursue the story and she does – vigourously. The question then becomes, is she right? Is Bligh innocent? If so, it’s the story of Thorne’s career. If not, she’s in real danger. It’s an interesting portrait of a person who has managed to make the prison system work for him, and of a journalist who may (or may not) be getting far too close to a story.
Angela Savage’s The Teardrop Tattoos tells the story of a woman who’s recently been released from prison after serving time for murder. She’s been given a small place to live not far from a local child care facility. She settles in there with her pit bull Sully and all is stable until a complaint is filed against her for having a dog of a ‘dangerous breed.’ Sully is her only companion so the woman makes plans for revenge against the person who filed the complaint. As she carries out her plans, we learn why she went to prison and about the hard shell that being in prison has given her. Although her time in prison is not the main focus of this story, the imprisonment has left its mark on her.
And that makes sense. Prison has a strong effect on people. And whether that effect is a good thing or not continues to be an unsettled question. Perhaps the fact that we don’t have all of the answers about this one is part of what makes it such an interesting topic in crime fiction. What do you think?
ps. The ‘photo is of a cell in the old Knox County (Illinois) Jail, now preserved as an historical site. It’s located on the campus of Knox College.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Cash’s San Quentin.