An interesting comment exchange with Cleo, at Cleopatra Loves Books, has got me thinking about ex-convicts. People go to prison for different reasons, not all of which mean that the ex-convict is going to be a danger to society once released. But that doesn’t necessarily mean life is easy for those who are trying to start over again.
For one thing, it’s often hard for an ex-convict to get a job. Not many employers are willing to give a chance to someone who’s been in prison. There’s also the issue of settling back into ‘regular’ society. Prison is its own world, with its own culture and its own ways. A person can get used to life there, and then find it very difficult to rejoin ‘the rest of us’ when the time comes. There are other challenges, too.
That transition – from prison to life on the outside – can make for an interesting plot point or layer of character development in a crime novel. And it makes sense, too, since prison and crimes often go together. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of many, many more.
In Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up In Tinsel, sculptor and painter Agatha Troy is commissioned to do a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasman. She’ll be working over the Christmas holiday, so Bill-Tasman invites her to do the work at his country home, Halbards. He’s planning a holiday gathering, too, so there is a lot going on at the estate. Bill-Tasman’s staff is unusual in that each one of them has spent time in prison for murder. None of these people is habitually violent or likely to offend again, so Bill-Tasman wanted to give them another chance. He’s a big believer in the redemptive power of productive and dignified employment, and he’s confident this experiment will work. On Christmas Eve, Bill-Tasman has a party for the local children, at which his uncle, Fleaton ‘Uncle Flea’ Forrester, is to dress up as a Druid and distribute gifts. But Forrester is taken ill at the last minute and isn’t able to do the job. His servant, Alfred Moult, stands in for him, and the party goes on. After the party, Moult goes missing and is later found dead. Troy’s husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is persuaded to investigate. It’s assumed at first that a member of Bill-Tasman’s staff must be guilty, since each one of them has already killed, and since there was always friction between them and Moult. In the end, though, Alleyn finds it’s not quite that simple.
Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus introduces us to Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served time for euthanasia. One evening, wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri offers Lamberti an unusual proposition. He wants to hire Lamberti to help his son, Davide, overcome a bout with severe alcoholism and depression. It seems that Davide Auseri has not been able to stop drinking, despite spending time in rehabilitation facilities. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do, but he agrees to try. Little by little, he finds out why Davide is suffering so much. A year earlier, he happened to meet a young woman, Alberta Radelli. They started talking, decided they liked each other, and spent a pleasant day together in Florence. At the end of the day, Alberta begged her new friend to take her with him. Davide refused, and Alberta threatened suicide. He continued to refuse, and not long afterwards, Alberta’s body was discovered in a field outside of Milan. Since then, Davide has blamed himself for what he thinks is her suicide. Lamberti believes that the only way to help Davide is to find out what really happened to Alberta Radelli, and he sets out to do just that.
Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos begins shortly after the narrator has been released from prison, where she served time for murder. She is given a place to live not far from a child care facility, and she settles in with her constant companion, a Pit Bull named Sully. All goes well enough until the day a complaint is filed against her. One of the mothers whose children attend the child care facility lodged the complaint because Sully is a restricted breed. The local council then sends a letter to the narrator, instructing her to give Sully up. She has no choice, but that doesn’t mean she’s not going to do anything about it. As the story goes on, we learn more about why the narrator was in prison, and that adds an interesting and important layer to the story.
John Clarkson’s Among Thieves features James Beck, who owns a bar in the Red Hood section of Brooklyn. He served eight years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and he bought the bar with money he got from a wrongful-imprisonment lawsuit. The bar’s co-owners are Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Guzman, Demarco Jones, and Ciro Baltassare, all people Beck met in and through prison. The bar is their chance to ‘go straight’ and live legal lives. Everything changes when Manny’s cousin, Olivia Sanchez, comes to him for help, claiming that she’s been harassed by a co-worker. She goes on to say that she was hounded out of her job and ‘blacklisted’ from other companies because she was going to ‘blow the whistle’ on illegal activity at the investment firm where she worked. Manny wants to handle this in his own way, but Beck persuades him to hold off – at first. Then, the group discovers that there’s a lot more going on here than it seems on the surface. And they soon find themselves drawn into a complicated case of fraud, theft and murder.
And then there’s Magdaleno ‘Mags’ Argueta, whom we meet in Christina Hoag’s Skin of Tattoos. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served time on weapons charges. He was set up by a fellow gang member, and he’s aware of that. But his feeling is that, by taking this prison time, he’s demonstrating loyalty to his gang, which he’s always thought as a family. Showing that sort of loyalty goes far among gang members. Now that he’s out of prison, Mags wants to ‘go straight,’ try to get a legitimate job, and maybe even get out of the gang-ridden area of Los Angeles where he lives. It’s going to be difficult, though. For one thing, the gang leadership doesn’t easily let members go. For another, not many employers will trust someone who’s been in prison with a job. Certainly, there aren’t many legitimate opportunities to make a decent income. And there’s Mags’ loyalty to the gang. The members are closer than brothers. Still, Mags is determined to try to live a legitimate life – until a series of events draws him closer to the gang life and forces him to make some choices that could cost him his life.
Being released from prison doesn’t really end a former convict’s challenges. It’s not easy to start over, and certainly not easy to live a ‘straight and narrow life.’ And that tension can add much to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Once a Thief.