TITLE: Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner
AUTHOR: Donald Westlake
255 pages, Hard Case Crime, ISBN 9781785656828
Publication Date: February 13, 2018 (I received an uncorrected proof ARC in exchange for an honest review), trade paperback, $9.95
DESCRIPTION: (from the back cover): JAILED FOR A JOKE
It isn't easy going to jail for a practical joke. Of course, this particular joke left 20 cars wrecked on the highway and two politicians' careers in tatters - so jail is where Harold Künt landed. Now he's just trying to keep a low profile in the Big House. He wants no part of his fellow inmates' plan to use an escape tunnel to rob two banks. But it's too late; he's in it up to his neck. And that neck may just wind up in a noose...
HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER is Donald E. Westlake at his funniest and his most ingenious, a rediscovered crime classic from the MWA Grand Master returning to stores for the first time in three decades.
MY RATING: Five out of five stars
MY THOUGHTS: I admit I haven’t read a lot of Donald E. Westlake. Some short stories, maybe a Parker novel back in my ill-remembered high school days at the behest of a friend, and last year’s Hard Case Crime release of Westlake’s previously-unpublished novel Forever And A Death. Despite multiple people telling me how comedic Westlake could be, everything I’ve read by him has been on the more serious/adventure side of things. Those books had funny scenes interspersed, but weren’t wholly comedic tales.
I’ve now experienced Westlake’s full comedic prowess, and I’m hooked. Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner is a fast, funny romp of a story, virtually “unputdownable.” There’s a catchy turn of phrase, or a crackling bit of dialogue, or a tongue-in-cheek wink at the reader, on almost every page that should bring a chuckle, if not an outright laugh (and I did actually laugh out loud at least four times), to any reader with at least a moderate sense of humor. I suspect there are people who will not find Westlake’s wordplay or the main character’s antics funny – those people are the real life versions of characters Warden Gadmore and guard Fred Stoon – but I really enjoyed the book.
It can be hard to make humor based on mispronunciations work in print, but Westlake pulls it off on the first page. Our narrator has a name people have been saying wrong his entire life: Harry Künt (“with an umlaut,” he repeatedly tells people). He never quiet spells out exactly how people are mispronouncing his name, but the reader can guess pretty easily. This becomes a running joke throughout the book, and serves as character motivation for why Harry became a practical joker early in life. (Okay, it might be thin character motivation, but it works as a launching point.)
The entire book really is a comedy of errors, as Harry gets further and further in over his head. But it’s a comedy of errors that never quite veers into farce despite some of the stock characters Harry finds himself surrounded by (the officious and humorless warden; the threatening gang leader who just won’t give up the plan; the fellow in-mate who gets a little too lost in the character he’s playing outside the jail walls). In a way, it reminds me of classic episodes of The Simpsons or the Dick Van Dyke show: just when you think you know where the story is heading and what the punchline is going to be, Westlake adds a new complication to poor Harry’s life. And this includes the titular sub-plot: someone else in the prison is pranking the warden by having the title phrase pop up in unusual places; we know from the start this is one practical joke Harry is innocent of, but of course the warden, head-guard and other officials think it must be him because that’s what he got sent in for.
The author also seamlessly blends in the other genres he’s famous for (and some he's not): it’s a jail-break caper, a bank robbery caper, a feel-good prison-buddy story (Harry bonds with a fellow prisoner who is in charge of all the gardening), a military-base escapade, a romance. The comedy works because Westlake knows the tropes of all of these genres and tweaks them just enough to make each scene funny without losing the tension (the military-base scene in particular is equal parts Lee Marvin movie and M*A*S*H). I have no doubt that, had he wanted to, Westlake could have written this as a straight-up thriller and the story would have hung together just as well.
(Side-note: I’m actually surprised this has never been adapted to film. It’s an ideal vehicle for someone with an everyman look and solid comic timing, surrounded by character actors with the right mixture of menace and buffoonery.)
As seen above, Hard Case Crime’s re-release of this 30 year old long out-of-print Westlake classic comes with an equally humorous cover painting by Paul Mann that simply and expertly captures the mood of the book without being cartoony or too cutesy. This is the eighth Westlake novel HCC has released, following 361, The Comedy Is Finished, The Cutie, Memory, Somebody Owes Me Money, Forever and A Death, and Lemons Never Lie, (under Westlake’s Richard Stark pseudonym).
Fans of loving send-ups of classic genres, written by authors who know those genres well, really should check out Help I Am Being Held A Prisoner. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.