The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Jail

InJailThe Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached our tenth stop, and thanks to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, we’re having a lovely time. Today we’ve arrived at the historic frontier town of J City, which even has its own frontier jail. Everyone’s quite eager to have a look around the town, so while they’re getting ready, I’ll share my contribution for this stop:  jail . Trust me; there are a lot of crime-fictional deaths that occur there.

Now, jail isn’t generally a happy place. It’s not supposed to be a pleasure holiday. But it’s a different matter when someone dies in prison. Just ask Caroline Crale, whom we learn about in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). One afternoon her husband Amyas is poisoned with coniine and she is arrested, tried and imprisoned for the crime. There’s plenty of motive, too, as Amyas is having an obvious affair with another woman. There’s even clear evidence that Caroline has coniine in her possession. She doesn’t defend herself very vigourously and a year later, she dies in jail. Sixteen years later, her daughter Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to clear her mother’s name. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent and wants to find out who her father’s killer was. Poirot agrees and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ in the days up to and including the day of the murder. He also gets a written account of the events from each witness. Clues he finds in what he is told and what he reads put Poirot on the right trail. Fans of this novel will know that if Caroline had lived, she may or may not have been very helpful; it would be interesting to know what she would have ended up saying if Poirot had gotten to know her…

In Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Father, Cale Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy is murdered. The police soon arrest her platonic roommate Richard Vanderpoel and with good reason. He was seen shortly after the murder with the victim’s blood on him and he can’t account for his time.  Hanniford also believes that Vanderpoel must be guilty, but he wants to know what led to the murder. He’s been estranged from Wendy and is interested in the kind of person she became, and especially why she was killed. So he approaches former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder to ask him to find out what he can. Scudder is reluctant; the police seem to have the case well in hand. But Hanniford persuades him to look into the matter. Scudder goes to the jail where Vanderpoel is being held and tries to talk to him but Vandepoel is either drugged or in a psychotic mental state, so he can’t be of much help. But some of the things he does say suggest that Wendy Hanniford’s death was not as straightforward as it seems. Shortly after their interview, Vanderpoel suddenly commits suicide. Now Scudder has to find other ways to look into what happened on the day of the murder, what led up to it and how it’s tied in with Vanderpoel’s death.

Laura Lippman’s The Sugar House begins with the arrest of Henry Dembrow for a ‘Jane Doe’ murder. The case is very clear-cut; he and the unidentified victim were sniffing glue in the back yard of the house where he and his sister Ruthie live. The victim tried to get into the house, Dembrow tried to stop her, and she fell backwards, hitting her head on concrete and dying. Henry is remanded to Hagerstown (Maryland) prison. A year later, he’s stabbed while in prison. His sister Ruthie wants to find out who killed Henry and why. So she hires journalist-turned-PI Tess Monaghan to get some answers. Ruthie believes that Henry was murdered because of the girl he’d accidentally killed, and that once the victim is identified, it’ll be easier to track down Henry’s murderer. Monaghan begins to ask questions and follows the trail to Persephone’s Place, a residential drug treatment facility where the unidentified girl might have spent time. That’s where she gets her first real clue as to the girl’s identity and background. In the end, and after another death, Monaghan finds out what really has been going on at the clinic, who the dead girl was, and why Henry Dembrow was murdered.

Gail Bowen’s A Colder Kind of Death begins when a prison inmate named Kevin Tarpley is shot while exercising in the prison yard. This death is especially meaningful for Saskatchewan political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn. First, Tarpley was in jail for the murder of her husband Ian. Second, Tarpley wrote her a letter full of religious references shortly before his murder. Then, Tarpley’s wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is killed. Suspicion now falls on Kilbourn in part because of her husband’s death and in part because of some confrontations she’d had with Maureen. Kilbourn wants to clear her name and she wants to deal with her continuing grief over the loss of her husband. So she looks into both killings. She discovers that Tarpley was more complex than just an inmate who’d ‘found God.’ With help from prison chaplain Paschal Temple she learns that Tarpley wasn’t so much religiously observant as he was guilt-ridden over lies he said he told. This clue leads Kilbourn to believe that there’s something more to these two murders than it seems on the surface.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case) is the story of the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and his friends go in together on a lottery ticket and to everyone’s surprise, they win. They go out to celebrate their good fortune but not long after Leverkuhn returns home, he’s brutally murdered. Intendant Münster and his team investigate the killing and at first, there’s not much to go on really. Leverkuhn and his wife Marie-Louise lived quietly and didn’t seem to have any hidden enemies among their neighbours or friends. So the team looks more deeply into Leverkuhn’s family life. Then, unexpectedly, Marie-Louise confesses to the killing. She isn’t really clear about the motive but she insists that she’s guilty. So she’s jailed. Still, Münster and the other members of the team have serious questions about the case and keep looking for answers. Then Marie-Louise commits suicide in jail. Now quite certain that she was covering up for someone, the team continues to dig for the truth and in the end, we learn who really killed Waldemar Leverkuhn and why.

And then there’s Thomas Enger’s Pierced. Oslo journalist Hennig Juule is haunted and physically scarred by a fire that killed his ten-year-old son Jonas. He gets a call one day from real estate speculator Tore Pulli, who is in jail for the murder of Joachim ‘Jock’ Brolenius. Pulli says that he was framed for the murder. He also says that he knows who burned Juule’s flat and therefore, killed his son. He’s willing to trade what he knows for Juule’s help in finding out who really killed Brolenius. Juule himself has only fuzzy memories of the time before, during and immediately after the fire and he’s desperate for any information he can get. So he agrees to look into Pulli’s case. On the one hand, Pulli is not exactly an upstanding trustworthy person. So he could very well be lying just to get out of prison. On the other, since Pulli is a former enforcer, there could be any number of people who might want him to take the blame for their crimes. Then, suddenly, Tore Pulli dies during a TV interview that’s being recorded. Juule becomes certain that his own tragic past is liked with Pulli’s death, so he searches for the truth about what happened to Pulli as much to answer his own questions as for any other reason.  

As you can see, jail is not the safest place for people to be. It’s a pretty unpleasant and tension-filled place anyway, so it makes sense that jail deaths would figure an awful lot in crime fiction. Now, how about we go visit that beautifully reconstructed jail they’ve put up in this town?  😉


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Håkan Nesser, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, Thomas Enger

33 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Jail

  1. Very timely, Margot, as I’ve just finished reading a novel that is all about how jail turns a good man bad: ‘The Distinguished Assassin’ by Nick Taussig. Admittedly, the jail is a Siberian gulag, the main protagonist is a political prisoner growing disenchanted with Stalinist Russia, so perhaps not quite your average experience of jail.

  2. I can’t wait to see what you come up with for X – Death by Xylophone? And for Z I’ve been searching my memory for any murderous zebras… 😉

  3. Margot, any mention of jailhouse mysteries puts me in mind at once of Jacques Futrelle’s marvelous (and justly famous) short story, “The Problem of Cell 13,” written in 1907, frequently cited as one of the best locked room puzzles of all time – even though there is no murder in it. Futrelle’s protagonist, Professor S. F. X. Van Dusen, known as The Thinking Machine, makes a bet with several other people that he can escape within a week from the ultra-secure “death cell” at Chisholm Prison, a cell which everyone, from the warden on down, insists is escape-proof. How the professor manages to “think his way out” makes for a fascinating story!

    • Les – Oh, that’s a classic ‘locked room’ story, that’s for sure! You know, I need to do at some point another post about those ‘locked room and impossible mystery’ stories. They’re fascinating!

  4. When Lord Peter Wimsey first meets the great love of his life, Harriet Vane, she in prison, charged with murdering her boyfriend. He is determined to prove her innocent, and visits her several times in jail. She says something like ‘I am always at home. I will give the footman orders to admit you’… which always made me laugh.

    • Moira – I really do like Harriet’s sense of humour and that is a funny scene. I like the way that she just assumes Wimsey isn’t going to be willing (or able) to anything for her, only to be proven completely wrong. Thanks for the reminder of a terrific book.

  5. Margot: Few authors have made jail as important a part of different books than John Grisham. In The Racketeer, The Broker and The Brethren the lawyers or judges featured are in jail. In The Confession and the Chamber the clients are on death row. He does a good job of portraying life in American jails.

    Personally I have conducted interviews with clients in jail on remand. The feel and sound of the barred doors clanging shut behind only rivaled when they close behind you on your departure.

    • Bill – I can well imagine that the sound of those doors is haunting, for lack of a better word. You’re right too about Grisham’s portrayal of prisons. The scenes in which his characters interview those in jail and the novel that feature jailed characters are really authentic.

  6. Anne H

    Two of the best female PIs have their own experience of jail too: Kinsey Millhone in H is for Homicide, and VI Warshawski in Hard Time.

  7. Great examples here–I hadn’t considered jailhouse murder.
    I’d also forgotten about Grisham’s use of jailhouse life until Bill brought it up.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks for the kind words. I’d not thought of Grisham’s stories either until I read Bill’s comment. That’s what I love about people’s comments here; I always learn from them.

  8. Jailhouse crimes? My mind flicks to Dickens but I’m not sure – oh yes, it is A Tale of Two Cities. Lots of jailhouse crime going on there -and so absolutely riveting. I like thinking about Peter Whimsey going to see his about to be gal, Harriet. And isn’t jail the original locked-door mystery setting? Thanks for a great look at mysteries!

    • Jan – You know, you’re absolutely right about jails and ‘locked-room’ kinds of mysteries. I think there’s something about jail that just lends itself to the genre. And I hadn’t thought of A Tale of Two Cities when I was putting this post together but it certainly has elements of crime fiction in it. And there are a lot of ‘jail scenes’ too. That’s a good point!

  9. I immediately thought of Harriet Vane but someone beat me to it. Neat topic.

  10. col

    I’m thinking more hard-core here and Eddie Bunker, criminal turned writer, turned actor. He wrote some excellent books which I have enjoyed, plus I remember him in Reservoir Dogs as well. He lived it and turned his life around and wrote it.
    Another old favourite of mine was Danny R Martin. He had a couple of great books – The Dishwasher being one of them. I also recall he was writing a newspaper column, or at least contributing to one from prison, which the authorities tried to stop, leading to the excellent non-fiction book…..Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog.

    • Col – Thanks for those suggestions. And honestly, I hadn’t thought about Danny Martin at all and should’ve; he did do some good stuff. Thanks for putting his work back on my radar.

  11. I started reading ‘Two Soldiers’ by Roslund and Hellstrom which had some very realistic jail scenes in it. A little too realistic for me, I’m afraid. Descriptions of internal searches aren’t really for me but the book has had a good write-up….

    • Sarah – I’ve read some good write-up of Two Soldiers as well, but hadn’t yet decided if I’m going to read it. If you finish it I’ll be very interested in what you think of it. I can well imagine that the jail scenes might be intense…

  12. Very interesting post, Margot. I haven’t read much on this subject (at least not that springs to memory). I have noticed lots of TV episodes and movies where a death in jail is a part of the story. All of your examples sound good, and those are authors I plan to read.

    • Tracy- Thanks – You know, I hadn’t thought about it but you’re right. There are a lot of TV episodes where a character dies in jail. It certainly does add to the drama of the plot. I hope that if you get the chance to read some of these books, you’ll enjoy them.

  13. As Grisham and Problem of Cell 13 are already mentioned, the next thing that springs to my mind is Green Mile and Shwashank Redemption.

  14. Don’t you mean…gaol? 🙂

  15. Anne H

    Your mention of The Sugar House sent me to check my To Be Read piles and sure enough, there it was. I’ve always enjoyed this series, and this one is terrific, maybe the best. Thank you!

    • Anne – I do like the Tess Monaghan series. I like Monaghan’s character and the Baltimore setting is very well done I think. And yes, this particular one is a good ‘un.

  16. There’s a British Television Series you might want to check out. It was done in either the 1980’s or 1990’s, I’m not sure which. To look at it, you’d have to rent it. That’s what we did. It’s called JONATHAN CREEK. He’s a Magician’s Assistant, who ends up solving mysteries, left and right, usually with a female friend. It is a DIFFERENT kind of who-done-it. I LOVED IT, because it was different. Have you seen any of them? I’d REALLY recommend them to you if you haven’t! 🙂

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