Review by C.J. Bunce
You don’t expect a crime novel or pulp fiction to be funny. Sure, any good story has some humor, but crime mysteries are the stuff of suspense-thrillers and dark alleys, right? Maybe so, but then there is the late great crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake. His novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner has a lead character that would knock any reader off his chair. The Chicago Sun-Times called Westlake “the funniest crime writer going” and they’re probably right. His humor sometimes comes out of nowhere. It’s not the hard-boiled flavor you may be used to, but his characters are still clever as ever, possessing those traits that make everyone appear so real. His comedy is decisive and quick and the next thing you know tears are shooting out of yours eyes and coffee out your nose. Hot on the heels of last year’s posthumously published action thriller Forever and a Death (reviewed here), Westlake’s Help I Am Being Held Prisoner is the latest classic find from the Hard Case Crime series, a 1974 novel now back in bookstores in a new edition for the first time in decades (with a great painted Paul Mann cover), and making people laugh again 44 years later.
Westlake’s protagonist this time is Harold Künt, last name pronounced “koont.” The umlaut is important because pretty much no one has pronounced his name correctly in his life. He’s 32 years old and unmarried, after three girlfriends refused to marry him, mainly because of his name. In a roundabout but direct way, the joke God played on him with his name–in Künt’s mind–was rationale to play jokes on everyone else. So Künt rebelled and got a sweet vengeance against everyone and anyone via his unique brand of practical jokery. His signature? The best practical jokes are the ones you don’t see play out. You just set them up and walk away. Künt is a pretty satisfied guy until one of his jokes goes too far off the rails and he lands in a New York jail–five to fifteen years in the penitentiary–a steeper penalty than warranted. But two married Congressmen and unmarried ladies in the cars with them were part of a 17-car collision caused by Künt’s latest prank. So Künt was due for his comeuppance. The novel begins with Künt’s first day in the slammer. Jailed for a joke, he’s resigned to becoming rehabilitated. Sort of. No more pranks, the warden orders, as Künt leaves some goo on the door handle as he leaves with the guard. Künt is provided good advice, and he’s shown which of the inmates to steer clear of and for which reasons. Then his roommate gets paroled and everything falls apart. Or does it?
It’s a crime novel, so the novel needs a crime. Künt falls in with exactly the wrong crowd, a group of thugs who have control over a tunnel out of the prison where they have found a way to live a second life outside of their jail sentences. Is Künt in or is he out? The band of criminals develop a plan to rob not just one but two of the local town banks. What better an alibi to an armed robbery than being locked in jail?
No blood and guts, no muggings, no knives to throats, no womanizing bad guy, no over-the-top profanity, and no racy sex scenes. This is a crime novel, right?
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner feels like a 1950s story, despite its 1970s setting. It’s a small, quiet New York town, with a big enough population so that the prisoners can go unnoticed, big enough so they can commit some small crimes to get some cash. It has some good restaurants and an Army base. But is it big enough for Künt to finally get a clean slate? The pacing and tempo and style have a Stephen King vibe, as with his Joyland. King is a fan of Westlake (his endorsement appears on the new edition’s cover), and it’s easy to wonder whether he was inspired by Westlake eight years later to pen his own famous prison story, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, or even The Green Mile more than a decade after that. But there’s less Shawshank and Escape from Alcatraz here than the full-on zaniness of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stir Crazy (the comedy with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor).
It’s great, it’s funny, and it’s prime material for a good movie along the lines of Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch series. Pick up the new paperback edition of Donald E. Westlake’s Help I Am Being Held Prisoner now, available here at Amazon.