I’m Free*

nmandelaAs this is posted, it’s 27 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison. People around the world watched as he walked out of the prison and into a new life that led to the top of South Africa’s leadership.

It’s all got me to thinking about what it’s like for people who’ve been imprisoned, and are set free. That’s a common plot point in crime fiction, of course, and it’s interesting to see how it’s handled. Of course, a lot of fictional characters haven’t been wrongly imprisoned in the same way that Mandela was. But that plot point can add an interesting layer to a story.

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables isn’t usually thought of as a crime novel. Still, there’s a crime in it, and Jean Valjean is imprisoned for twenty years because of it. The novel, of course, tells, among other things, the story of what happens after he leaves prison, and his reaction to being freed:

‘…when Jean Valjean heard in his ear the unfamiliar words, ‘You are free,’ the moment seemed improbable and extraordinary, and a ray of bright light, of the true light of the living, penetrated to him…’

His joy is short-lived, as you’ll no doubt know. But it’s no less there at first.

There’s the same sort of wonderment when Elinor Carlisle is freed in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. She’s been imprisoned for the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard, lodgekeeper’s daughter at Elinor’s family home, Hunterby. There’s good reason to suspect Elinor, too. For one thing, her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman has become infatuated with Mary, to the point where their engagement has been broken off. For another, Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura has very much taken to Mary, and there’s a good chance that she might bequeath all of her fortune to her, and not Elinor or Roddy. Still, local GP Peter Lord wants Elinor’s name cleared, mostly because he’s fallen in love with her. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. At the end of the trial, Elinor is freed. Here is what Poirot says about it:

‘‘When one has walked in the valley of the shadow of death, and come out of it into the sunshine – then, mon cher, it is a new life that begins…’’

And, although Christie isn’t specific, she does hint at exactly that.

Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel takes an interesting perspective on release from prison. In that novel, artist Agatha Troy is commissioned to do a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasman. The plan is for her to spend the Christmas holidays at his home, Halbards, while she does the work. Troy soon learns that Halbards is a bit unusual. All of the people who work there are people who’ve served time for murder. Bill-Tasman believes that these are not, by nature, violent people who are a threat to society. His view is that they killed once, but aren’t likely to again. He also believes in the redemptive power of honest work and a chance to start life over. For the staff members, it’s an opportunity that very few others would have been willing to give them, so they are grateful. The house runs smoothly enough until Christmas Eve. On that night, a special event is planned, in which Bill-Tasman’s Uncle Fleaton ‘Uncle Flea’ Forrester is to dress up as a Druid and distribute gifts to the local children, who’ve been invited for a party. Uncle Flea takes ill, though, and his valet/servant Aflred Moult takes his place. Right after the gifts are distributed, though, he disappears, and is later found dead. Bill-Tasman’s staff members come under quite a lot of suspicion, especially given their prison records. But Troy isn’t so sure any of them is guilty. Her husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is concerned, anyway, about his wife’s staying in a house where a murderer is likely staying. So, partly for that reason, he visits Halbards and investigates the crime. Together, he and Troy discover what really happened to Moult and why.

In one plot thread of Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, former journalist Robert Dell, his wife, Rosie, and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon near Cape Town. They’re ambushed, and their car goes over an embankment. Rose and the children die in the tragedy, but Dell survives (albeit with injuries). The police accuse Dell of murdering his family members (and it’s not spoiling the story to say that he is innocent). And it’s soon clear that nothing he says is going to make any difference. He’s imprisoned, framed for murder. Unbeknownst to Dell, his father, Bobby Goodbread, has learned of his situation, and finds a way to free him from jail. The two have been estranged for years, mostly due to their differing views on race, apartheid and politics. But Dell is extremely grateful to be free, and he and his father, each for a different reason, go in search of the person who really killed Dell’s family.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. A woman has recently been released from prison for murder. She’s given a place to live not far from a local child care facility, and settles in with her beloved companion, a bit bull named Sully. One day, the woman gets a letter from the local council. It seems that one of the parents associated with the child care facility has complained about Sully. Since he’s a restricted breed, his owner will have no choice but to get rid of him. Sully means everything to this woman, so she plots her own kind of revenge. As the story goes along, we learn why she was in prison, and what happened. It’s not as clear-cut a case as it seems in the beginning of the story. So, the reader is left to determine whether she was unjustly imprisoned.

It’s very interesting to see how crime writers approach that topic of people who’ve been released from jail. They have all sorts of reasons for being there, and all sorts of experiences after their release. And it can make for very interesting plot points and characters.


This ‘photo is iconic; it shows Nelson Mandela leaving Robben Island. Thanks, NPR.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Who.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Ngaio Marsh, Roger Smith, Victor Hugo

24 responses to “I’m Free*

  1. I can’t think of the title off the top of my head, but I am sure I’ve read at least one crime novel where the main protagonist comes out of prison and wants to turn over a new leaf, but somehow gets caught up in bad stuff again…

    • Oh, I think there are several of those, Marina Sofia. One of them that comes right to my mind is Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, where a man wants to start over for the sake of his toddler son, but sadly, it doesn’t work out well… Hmm….that’s a really interesting angle on this, for which thaks.

  2. Margot, thanks for jogging ‘Les Misérables’ back to my memory. I’ve been interested in reading it for quite a while but there are so many books on my list. I better include this up there so I won’t forget to read it!

    So many books, so little time!

    • I couldn’t agree more, Sbrnseay1. There are always hundreds more good books than there will ever be time for me to read them. I’m glad you’re planning to read Les Misérables; I think it’s earned its place as a classic.

  3. I’ve just finished one – Rennie Airth’s The Death of Kings – where the murder of a young girl is initially pinned on a man, mainly on the grounds that he’s just got out of prison after serving a sentence for assaulting another girl. One of the many examples in fiction (and maybe in fact) where even after the sentence is served, the ex-prisoner is put in the frame for any similar crime…

    • Oh, I’m sure that happens in real life, FictionFan. And it makes sense that, in fiction, we’d see a person suspected – even arrested – because of having committed a similar crime. And sometimes the crime doesn’t even have to be all that similar, really. Prison has a sort of hold on our consciousness, perhaps. Hmmmm…’food for thought,’ for which thanks. And thanks for mentioning the Airth. Now there’s a talented author, in my humble opinion.

  4. I am still fascinated about the quoted Poirot’s remark ‘ when one has walked in the valley of the shadow of death…’. Did Christie refer to her eleven days disappearance? Did she consider committing suicide at that time?

    • That is a fascinating question, Christie’s Fan. I think a lot of people would like to know what really happened during those days. In this particular context, Poirot is explaining to Peter Lord how Elinor must feel after being released from prison. He’s making the point that she’s not the same person she was when she went in. But it certainly could have had other, more personal, meaning for her.

  5. tracybham

    Walter Mosley has a short series about an ex-convict, Socrates Fortlow. It starts with ALWAYS OUTNUMBERED, ALWAYS OUTGUNNED. I haven’t read it yet but I plan to.

  6. kathy d

    RIP Nelson Mandela! Amandla!
    I don’t know about this theme standing out but I have read several books where a former prisoner is either a murdered again or else is being framed for a murder. Can’t think of specifics at the moment.

    • Agreed about Mandela, Kathy. And you’re right, there are a lot of crime novels in which the former prisoner is framed (or killed). That’s a post topic in and of itself, really.

  7. I think it works very well in UK films and TV: there’s a classic shot of someone being let out of prison, climbing through the small door in the walls, clutching a paper bag of belongings, looking round and up at the sky. Is someone meeting them? Who is that sinister man lurking? Is the press there? Is there a woman who has stayed true….?Are they going to look for revenge? – we all know about the exciting possibilities.

    • You’re right, Moira. That really does work so on screen. And the nice thing is, as you say, it can be sued for just about any sort of story. I took a crimefic look at it, but it honestly could work in another sort of drama, or a romance, or a lot of different contexts. And it’s got visual ‘punch.’

  8. Another fascinating topic, Margot! Dust Devils and The Teardrop Tattoos both sound perfect for me. Adding them to the TBR list. Thank you!

  9. Great post 🙂 My favorite “tale of the free man” (besides Madiba’s) is The Count Of Monte Cristo. The Man In The Iron Mask too. (Coincidentally both are written by Dumas 😮 )

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