Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Should someone be put in prison for a practical joke?
Yes. All practical jokers belong in jail. Or hell.
Harry has been an unrepentant prankster his entire life, but now he has been locked up after one of his jokes went wrong which resulted in several injuries. Once inside he quickly bumbles onto the secret of several other inmates. There was an opportunity during construction of a prison expansion to build a tunnel which they use to regularly leave. This isn’t for escape because none of these guys have long enough sentences to want to live on the run, but rather they just use the tunnel to go out and do the things they can’t while in jail only to return each night. Harry gets cut in on the scheme, and he enjoys the quasi-freedom it allows him. However, there’s a big catch. The inmates have realized that they have the ultimate alibi of being in prison so they've got an ambitious plan to rob two banks at once, and they demand that Harry take part in it. This puts Harry in a real bind since he may be in jail, but he’s no crook.
The late Donald Westlake was capable of doing both drama and comedy well, and as a lighthearted story written for yucks it works surprisingly well. I was worried in the early going because I really dislike practical jokers, and I thought that he’d be asking a reader to find Harry’s pranks hilarious. Instead Westlake makes it clear that this behavior is beyond annoying, but that Harry has a sick compulsion even when he knows the warden is watching him like a hawk and that his fellow inmates will murder him if they find out he's the one responsible. The humor comes from just how incapable Harry is of stopping, and the casual way we learn about the reign of terror he’s inflicting on hardened criminals. There’s a lesson for Harry in this story so that kept the book from asking me to be on the side of a guy who thinks tying someone’s shoe laces together is funny.
There’s also a running gag about Harry’s last name sounding like a vulgar term which I’m not gonna try to replicate here because I don’t have the patience to figure out how to do an umlaut. As with the practical joke angle I worried that Westlake was going for the most obvious and juvenile thing when it actually turns out to have some deeper meaning explaining Harry’s behavior.
So what we end up with is an enjoyable caper that makes for an entertaining couple of hours of fun reading.
However, I do find myself wishing that Westlake might have used this idea in one of his serious crime books he wrote as Richard Stark. If the humorless thief Parker would have run across a practical joker who screwed up his plans to rob a bank, and then got his big meaty paws around that guy’s neck and squeezed until he turned purple…. Yeah, that’d make for a pretty satisfying book, too.
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