Prison isn’t exactly a nice place to be. So, most people don’t want to go there. And, if they’re there, they don’t want to stay there. That’s one reason there are prison guards, security procedures, and so on. Despite those measures, though, people do escape from custody. With today’s technology, it’s not easy to do. But it does happen.
And it certainly happens in crime fiction. A prison escape can add some real tension to a story. And it can add a solid plot point, too. It’s a scenario that’s got to be done well if it’s going to be credible. But when it is, prison escape can work quite effectively in a crime story.
For instance, In Agatha Christie’s Sanctuary, vicar’s wife Diana ‘Bunch’ Howard goes to the local church to see to the flowers. When she gets there, she discovers to her shock that there’s a badly wounded man huddled on the floor. She’s too late to save his life, but, before he dies, the man says, ‘Sancturay.’ At first, it looks as though the man committed suicide. But if so, why choose an out-of-the-way country church? The dead man is identified as William Sandbourne when his sister and her husband contact the police station. But something about this couple doesn’t seem quite right to Bunch, and she asks her godmother, Miss Marple, for help. It turns out that things are not at all what they seem. This death was definitely a murder, and it’s related to a jewel theft and a prison escapee named Walter St. John.
C.B. Gilford’s short story Swamp Rat begins just after nineteen-year-old Claude Wetzel escapes from prison. He knows that if he can just get through the swamp that surrounds the prison, he has a chance to make it to a road and then to freedom. It’s not going to be easy, though. The prison guards are out in full, with trained dogs. And Wetzel has no money, no extra clothes, and no form of transportation other than his own legs. He’s discovered by an old man who lives in the swamp – a man who calls himself Dad. And it looks as though Wetzel might actually make it to the road. But things quickly get more complicated, and Wetzel will have to think fast if he’s going to survive.
Jeffery Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll features interrogator Kathryn Dance of the California Bureau of Investigation. She’s assigned to interview Daniel Pell, the leader of a Manson-like cult. He’s in prison for the murders of several members of the Croyton family eight years earlier. It’s believed that Pell and his ‘family’ are also responsible for a recently-discovered murder, and Dance’s job is to try to determine whether that’s true. But Pell escapes from prison. Now, more murders begin to occur, and it looks as though Pell is carrying out a vendetta against anyone who’s ever gotten in his way – including Dance and her family.
As James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos begins, New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux and his partner, Lester Benoit, are preparing to transport two convicts to Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary. One is Tee Beau Latiolais; the other is Jimmie Lee Boggs. Both of these men have been convicted of murder and are being sent to Death Row to await execution. While Robicheaux and Benoit are en route to Angola with their charges, Boggs manages to escape, which also frees Latiolais. Boggs kills Benoit, and badly wounds Robicheaux, leaving him for dead. But Robicheaux survives. And, when he gets the chance to catch Jimmie Lee Boggs, he can’t resist. It will mean, though, that he has to get close to, and then bring down, New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. And in the end, that proves to be a very complicated task.
Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam introduces us to professional housekeeper Blanche White. As the story begins, she’s been arrested for writing bad checks, and the judge has just sentenced her to jail time. As Blanche sees it, she cannot go to jail because that will leave her unable to care for her sister’s two children, who see her as more a mother than an aunt. Desperate to do something – anything – to get out of her predicament, Blanche tricks the guard who’s supposed to be watching her and makes her escape. Then, she takes a temporary housekeeping job that she believes will allow her to hide out for a bit until she can work out what to do about her money problems. Her new employers have secrets of their own, and it’s not long before Blanche is caught up in a case of murder.
And then there’s Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. Journalist Robert Dell is taking a drive one day outside of Cape Town. With him are his wife, Rosie, and their two children. Suddenly, the family is ambushed and the car plunges over an embankment. Only Dell survives, and he is injured. Soon, the police go after Dell, insisting that he killed his family members. He knows he is innocent, but that doesn’t stop him being found guilty in a frame-up. What Dell doesn’t know at first is that his estranged father, Bobby Goodbread, has found out what happened. Goodbread engineers his son’s escape, and the two leave Cape Town. The two men have very different attitudes about many things, most especially apartheid (Goodbread mourns its passing; Dell has the opposite point of view). Despite their differences, though, they start to work together. For different reasons, they’re both looking for the man who killed Dell’s family, so they towards Zululand, where their quarry lives. Along the way, they find much more danger than they’d imagined.
Escaping from custody isn’t easy. Neither is writing about it in a credible way. But, when it’s done well, a prison escape really can add to a story. These are just a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this song is a line from AC/DC’s Jailbreak.