Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

Fit the crime: Prison and prisoners in the crime novels of Peter Abrahams

Delusion

Cover illustration of paperback edition of Delusion

Towards the end of last year, I wrote in this newsletter about Peter Abrahams’s impaired heroes, one of whom was Nell Jarreau, the central character in Delusion (2008) who was struggling to cope with the fact that she had given mistaken eye-witness identification evidence in a murder trial 20 years earlier. The man she misidentified as the killer of her fiancé was Alvin Mack DuPree, who spent 20 years in prison before video evidence confirming his otherwise flimsy alibi came to light.

I wrote at the time that I wanted to say more about Alvin DuPree, but that I intended to do so in the context of a post about way Abrahams handles the theme of prisons and prisoners. So here we are.

In prison, DuPree lost his right eye in an attack by a gang member who felt that DuPree hadn’t shown him the respect he was due. He gained several things as well: a new nickname (“Pirate”, because of his eyepatch), an attachment to the Bible, including a detailed knowledge of the Book of Job, leading to serenity and patience. Despite the injustice of his conviction, Pirate is a man at peace with the world. That’s definitely not to say that he is a good man.

Napoleon (“Nappy”) Ferris, the liquor store owner who sent in the video tape establishing Pirate’s alibi, describes DuPree as “Thief, bully, coward, snake” (p. 61). But not a murderer. Not someone who deserved to spend 20 years in prison.

Pirate takes comfort from the fact that eventually “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (p. 37). He confidently expects to be similarly compensated and has every intention of ensuring that this comes about. He feels this start to slip away from him when Nell finds him bending over the body of Lee Ann Bonner, the journalist he’d agreed to cooperate with on a book about his case:

Nell’s face went pale, practically white. But her eyes, nostrils, mouth, were dark, like black holes. Something about the black-and-white look scared him. She said, “You are a murder, after all.” (p. 271)

The injustice of it all is finally fatal to Pirate’s serenity.

It took a few moments for Pirate to feel the truth sinking in. This was happening again? Not even to Job. The happening again sank in, sank in deep, and when it did, when it pierced all the way down to the core — she was going to frame him for the second time! — Pirate boiled over like some steaming gusher.
“Frame me again? You want murder?” (p. 271)

At this late stage in the story, Pirate hasn’t killed anybody or even done anything truly reprehensible. (He’s lied to Nell about what her husband said about his motive for framing him for the original murder.)

In the last few pages, he beats Lee Ann’s killer (who is also the killer of Nell’s original fiancé) to death with a tyre iron, disfigures another man whom he has mistaken for the killer, hits Nell’s daughter Norah causing concussion, before tying her up with guitar strings, brutally smashes Norah’s boyfriend’s jaw and puts him in a coma, and tries to kill Nell’s husband, injuring Nell herself instead when she gets between them. For his trouble, he is shot dead by a cop, arguably at a moment when he is no longer an immediate threat.

Poor Pirate. He really did have a long run of appallingly bad luck, to which his behaviour gave a helping hand. He went to prison innocent of any serious crime and came out a potentially destructive force. Ultimately, of course, that potential was realized in part.

Lights Out

Delusion is the most recent of the four books by Abrahams that I want to discuss. The earliest is Lights Out (1994). Its protagonist is Eddie Nye who serves a long prison term for a crime of which he was innocent. By the end of the novel, he has killed four men in cold blood and caused the death of several others by sinking the boat in which they were taking him to be tortured for the edification of the young son of a drug cartel boss. Eddie had been a carefree teenager, about to go the University of Southern California on a swimming scholarship, when he was caught in charge of a boat packed with freshly harvested marijuana plants.

Eddie hadn’t known the plants were there, having taken the boat simply to escape from his boss, who had caught him in bed with the boss’s secret mistress. Eddie was sentenced to five to fifteen years: ordinarily, he could expect to be released after four years. Eddie wasn’t happy with that: he urged his older brother (who had been working for the same boss) to track down the real owner of the drugs and clear his name.

In prison, however, things continued to go wrong for Eddie. On his eventual release, the “Director of Treatment”, Dr Messer, tells him that he’s described on his prison record as an “inadequate personality”:

“Five to fifteen, but everybody knows you’re out in three and a half, four. Any half-assed adequate personality would’ve been. Any half-assed adequate personality wouldn’t have fucked up his parole. But you did the whole nickel and dime, like the dumbest con in the joint.” (Chapter 2)

Messer adds that he expects to see Eddie back inside soon. He won’t be able to avoid reoffending and getting caught. Messer is an obnoxious and corrupt cynic — he eventually gets killed while helping the cartel leader to escape — but he’s right about Eddie’s prospects. If he’d managed to stay alive, he would indeed have seen Eddie again before long.

The way Eddie had managed to lose his parole was by killing three men, one of whom had raped him while the other two held him down. The third man, the ringleader, knew that the deaths of the other two had been Eddie’s doing and was taking no chances. He was never alone. It took Eddie two years to carry out his plan.

He stole a four-inch nail from the shop, carried it through the strip search glued to his palate, hanging down his throat. Back in his cell he took it out, along with part of the lining of the roof of his mouth. Late at night he would practice, holding the band taught between his teeth and his left hand, pulling it back, firing into his pillow for silence. A technique that took a long time to perfect, but that was the one thing he had. (Chapter 2)

After killing the rapist, Eddie is given the nickname “Nails”. There were several witnesses but nobody speaks, so there’s no evidence to convict Eddie of Louie’s murder but the prison authorities don’t need evidence to withdraw his parole, so he serves his full fifteen-year sentence.

Eddie remains a sympathetic character, despite being a cold-blooded multiple murderer, and despite not being not nearly as smart as he needs to be to protect both himself and the few people close to him. It’s painful for the reader to see him repeately make the wrong choices and trust some of the wrong people.

Where Pirate in the later book has Job to console him, Eddie has become preoccupied almost to the point of obsession with Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He asks various people he meets about the significance of the albatross. A young boy who works in a bookshop tells him that it’s merely a McGuffin, a device to hang the story on. A federal agent who is investigating his brother offers him a choice of two reasons why the mariner shoots the bird: either because it was there, or because the killing stands for original sin. The second of these is not so different from the answer that Eddie eventually hits on and that he finds satisfactory:

”I’m interested in it …” He paused. Why? An answer came: “because it’s a beautiful thing that doesn’t make sense.”
“Doesn’t make sense?”
“Because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. How can it when the nature of the crime’s a mystery?”
The boy looked puzzled. “Have you read the Bible?” he asked. “I’m talking about the Old Testament.”
“No.”
“That’s why you can ask a question like that.” (Chapter 24)

Eddie and Pirate have this much in common: that they go into prison as innocent men and come out as — in their very different ways — dangerous killers. Far from either rehabilitating them or acting as a deterrent, prison makes them almost immeasurably worse.

A Perfect Crime

A few years after Lights Out, Abrahams published another novel in which a newly released prisoner plays a destructive role. Whitey Truax (Donald to his mother) is not the central character in A Perfect Crime (1998), though important parts of the story are told from his point of view. Unlike Eddie Nye or Pirate, he was already a killer when he went to prison; like them, he did not become a better person as a result of his incarceration. The central characters are an unhappily married couple, Francie and Roger.

Francie is having an affair with a radio psychiatrist, unaware that Roger is on to her. Roger has an IQ of 181, an unappealing personality and drastically unevolved feelings about wifely fidelity. He believes that he can plan the perfect crime, get rid of Francie and incidentally make a substantial sum of money. He rather cleverly arranges things so that Francie takes out life insurance with him as the beneficiary, without any prompting from him and without appearing even to know about the transaction.

When it comes to the actual killing, he’s not nearly so dexterous. He thinks he can manipulate Whitey Truax, counting on him to behave in predictable ways. But while Whitey may be lacking in smarts, that doesn’t mean that he can easily be controlled. As a teenager, Whitey raped and murdered the wife of a young police officer in the course of burgling what he had thought was an empty holiday home. He was found guilty of first-degree murder but got a relatively short sentence because of his age, and was released after 17 years.

Keeping his contact with the killer well hidden, Roger believes that by setting things up so that Whitey will come across Francie in similar circumstances to those of his original murder, history will repeat itself. Things spin wildly and gorily out of Roger’s control.

End of Story

The last of the novels that I want to include in this discussion is End of Story (2006). This is the second of four superb novels that Abrahams published in the mid 2000s (the fourth being Delusion) and the only one of the four that I didn’t discuss in my earlier post about his impaired heroes.

Its protagonist is Ivy Seidel, a not-yet-successful author — during the course of the plot she has a short story accepted by The New Yorker — who does bar work in New York and takes over another writer’s gig teaching writing to inmates of Dannemora high security prison in upstate New York. The prison is forbidding — “Evil’s not too strong a word” her friend Danny says — but Ivy kind of likes it and gets on well with some of the guards.

She thinks that one of her students, Vance Harrow, is a very good writer. He’s serving a sentence for murder, resulting from the fatal shooting of a casino employee in a robbery. Ivy looks into the case and becomes convinced that Harrow wasn’t involved in the robbery but was set up by the man who planned it, Frank Mandrell. Mandrell had been having an affair with Harrow’s wife, Betty Ann, who is believed to have got away with the money, none of which was recovered.

When Harrow is attacked in prison and has to be taken to hospital, Ivy helps him to escape from the lower security environment with the idea that they’ll find Betty Ann and clear Harrow’s name. That turns out to be a bad mistake on her part. Instead of going to look for Betty Ann, Harrow takes advantage of his unexpected freedom to kill Mandrell and some of his henchman. His writing talent notwithstanding, he turns out to be yet another prisoner for whom a long stretch inside has not worked either as deterrent or rehabilitation. It emerges that he had not gone to prison as an innocent man, though the crime he was guilty of was not the one the prosecutors charged him with.

Ivy is sentenced to seven years — “meaning out in four with good behavior” (Chapter 32) — for helping Harrow to escape. The New Yorker prints her short story, an editor visits her in prison and comes away with her signature on a book contract, Ivy has plenty of time to write. Longhand and in pencil, of course, but she comes to prefer that. She writes 109 pages in 10 days. Things are going well for her. And then —

Ivy finds out that prison is not the safe environment, conducive to writing, that she might have hoped. The ending is inconclusive. Does Ivy get what she deserves? I don’t know — what does she deserve?

Editions: I read Lights Out and End of Story in ebook editions from Apple Books. A Perfect Crime is quoted from a Penguin paperback edition, 2000, and Delusion from a Harper paperback, 2009.


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