Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald E. Westlake is a rediscovered crime classic from the MWA Grand Master returning to stores for the first time in three decades (available February 13, 2018).
Hard Case Crime has done well in reissuing lost Donald Westlake classics. Westlake’s 361 and Memory are among the more enjoyable titles in their catalog. But HCC’s latest Westlake re-release, 1974’s Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, is not on par with those two nor is it among the better works penned by the ridiculously prolific multi-Edgar Award winner and former Mystery Writers of America Grand Master.
Harold “Harry” Künt is a 32-year-old guy who is a habitual practical joker. Maybe it’s his way of getting back at the world for all of the times people have pronounced his last name incorrectly (especially when combined with Harry) when it should sound like koont. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism he’s utilized to deal with a complex he has due to his family being American immigrants from Germany too close to Hitler’s reign. But whatever the reason, Künt has been pulling gags on people since he was a boy, and he’s still at it in his early 30s.
A recent prank he orchestrated—one that was only meant to draw some astounded attention among passersby but wound up causing several people to be injured—landed him in prison. So Künt, a generally law-abiding citizen even if an irrepressible prankster, is now in the pokey as a result of one of his gags—and life in prison becomes quite interesting for him fairly quickly.
Künt inadvertently falls in with a secret society of jailbirds who have access to a tunnel that nobody else knows about, which allows them to come and go from the facility to a nearby town. None of these guys want to actually try and escape from the prison, lest they receive the punishment that would come at being caught. But they use the tunnel to feel the taste of freedom for some hours here and there and have whole separate lives on the outside. They just make sure they’re back in their cells at check-in time.
If that was all Künt’s jailhouse cronies were after, he’d be cool with that. But they have grand schemes they want to pull during their forays into the open air—such as robbing a couple banks in the burg outside their tunnel. And since Künt is now one of them, they expect him to take part in their heists. Only he doesn’t want to, out of the usual fears of getting involved in such a scheme, particularly for a novice. But he can imagine what these guys would do to him if he tried to pull out of the jobs. And meanwhile, he can’t stop pulling gags on people, even in prison and even with (perhaps because of) all the drama going on around him.
As you might imagine from the above description, this is one of Westlake’s signature comic capers. There’s plenty of suspense in the story, and there are some hard characters, but this is among the author’s more light-handed crime novels—not at all like the no-nonsense Parker series he wrote as Richard Stark.
The big problem with Help I Am Being Held Prisoner is that much of it feels forced. The basic biographical sketch of Künt—a guy who has a couple chips on his shoulders and sometimes deals with all that by doing little dirty tricks to people (and often in a way where it’s like he takes these actions against his own will)—is believable and makes for good reading. So no trouble there. But the storyline about the tunnel and the whole world of convicts who come and go from the jailhouse to the town outside without any prison authorities knowing about it?
Hey, for all I know, this has happened in prisons before. And perhaps it’s belaboring an unnecessary point by questioning the believability of what is simply a gimmick in a comedic heist novel. But it’s hard to care about Künt’s life in prison when the goings-on there seem so far-fetched. None of the people in the town would ever have some interaction with the prisoners that would make them suspect they were rubbing shoulders with temporary jail escapees? And even though all these guys are on a special work detail that they oversee themselves without any guards checking on them as a rule, there wouldn’t be some time while they’re out hanging in the town that a prison official would have reason to be looking for them and would come to know they had vacated?
Also, Westlake’s writing, in general, feels forced here. There are endless sentences and paragraphs containing Künt’s inner thoughts as he tries to mentally sort through his various dilemmas. A little such insight into the mindset of the main character doesn't hurt, but the frequency with which this comes up in the novel becomes a nuisance. We don’t need to know every thought Künt has over the course of events told in the book. Many of those segments feel like page-count padding, as if Westlake had a word-number minimum he was required to reach with the book and was struggling to find things to write in order to meet that demand.
In fairness to the novel, I should mention that, as a rule, I strongly prefer Westlake’s harder-edged stuff to his comic capers. Any of his fans who generally enjoy his more easygoing novels is likely to get pleasure out of reading Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.
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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.