We reviewers often spend too much of our attention on aberrations: a debut novel with the confidence of a classic, a later novel by a beloved author that tries and fails at something new, a memoir by a popular culture freakshow of some sort or another. Human beings are genetically predisposed to look for novelty, and so consistency is often invisible to us.
So if a publisher is consistently good, they might paradoxically find it difficult to get attention on book review sites. And yes, I have an example in mind: Hard Case Crime so frequently publishes long lost classics in crime literature that it's hard to find a reason to single out any one title for attention: "consistently good publisher publishes predictably good book" isn't the kind of headline that grabs readers, after all.
I took last week off, and I wanted a very specific kind of vacation read: something funny, something smart, and something entertaining from the first page to the last. I wanted something like an Elmore Leonard novel: a crime story with a likable protagonist and a cast of smart-aleck characters. And so lucky for me, I bumbled across the Hard Case reissue of a 1974 Donald E. Westlake novel that has been out of print for three decades. Rarely do I find just the right book at just the right moment; this was one of those times.
The main character of Help I Am Being Held Prisoner is named Harold Künt. Right on the first page of Prisoner, his name makes him a lovable loser.
"Künt," I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont. "With an umlaut," I explained.
"Umlaut." I poked two fingers into the air, as though blinding an invisible man. "Two dots over the U. It's a German name."
Anyone who has to deliver a spiel just to keep uncaring strangers from turning their name into a profane insult is likely going to have a chip on their shoulder. And Künt suffers from a hellacious personality defect: he's basically an internet troll in an analog world. Künt has a pathological need to pull pranks at pretty much every opportunity.
If you've ever poured salt onto your meal at a restaurant only to watch helplessly as the unscrewed lid of the shaker gave way to a white glittering mountain of salt on your food, it was a guy like Künt who screwed you over. He lives to swap labels, to slightly change instructions, to leave calamities in his wake. One day, though, Künt plans a prank that spirals into a chaos that swallows him whole. I don't want to ruin the setup, so let's say it involves a fake nude woman and several elected officials.
When Künt lands in prison — the quoted bit above is his introduction to the warden — he halfway accepts his fate. He doesn't expect to see the outside for years. He's a small man sentenced to a long stretch, and he knows it.
Prisoner isn't a prison escape novel. In fact, thanks to some architectural shenanigans, Künt soon finds himself able to walk out of the prison whenever he wants, and the guards don't even realize he's gone. Unfortunately, Künt has fallen in with a group of hardened criminals who seek to use that secret revolving door to rob two banks at the same time. Prison, they reason, is the perfect alibi: nobody is going to suspect you of bank robbery if everyone thinks you're doing hard time.
The problem is that Künt isn't a bank robber. He doesn't have the stomach for a life of crime, though his new associates are under the mistaken belief that he's a vicious mad dog with a list of convictions longer than his inseam. Künt's dilemma is a fascinating one in crime fiction: he's a prisoner who suffers from too much freedom, a criminal who desperately wants to avoid committing a crime.
Westlake wrote dozens of entertaining books — including, pseudonymously, the excellent Parker series of novels — but his prose never sparkled as brightly as it does in Prisoner. I already made the comparison to Elmore Leonard above, and that's the easy line to draw. But perhaps more aptly, Prisoner reads like if P.G. Wodehouse had tried his hand at an American noir novel.
It's not just the sparkling dialogue that evokes Wodehouse. The class distinctions between Künt and the other men in his gang make up the bulk of Prisoner's comedy. On the one side, you have Künt, who views himself as a harmless jokester. And on the other side, you have a crew of rotten thieves who think nothing of mugging a hapless stranger to pick up some quick cash before going on a date. Prisoner is class-conscious in a way that most American fiction isn't, and the crime novel in fact feels like economic satire at its sharpest points.
Sure, parts of Prisoner haven't aged well. Westlake clearly thought he was being sensitive when he wrote his female characters, for instance, but when the love story kicks in, readers will likely feel every second of the 40 years between its initial publication and today. And people who have a hard time imagining how (or why) to use a payphone might not appreciate the complexities of Westlake's plot.
But this plot is as finely strung as a Stradivarius. Readers who appreciate a tightly wound genre thriller will find a lot to enjoy in Prisoner, as will fans of dialogue-driven crime comedies. Prisoner isn't the best of Hard Case's prodigious output, but it certainly upholds the line's high standards of excellence. It's a summertime confection as predictably delicious as a pint of your favorite ice cream.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant