Book review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald E. Westlake (HCC-132)

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.

Our protagonist is Harry Künt (with an umlaut, as he’ll be sure to tell you), an inveterate practical joker. He has been tortured his whole life by his name, which everyone mispronounces but which he won’t change because that would break his oblivious mother’s heart. His practical jokes are his way of lashing out at the world about his constant humiliation. He’s good at them, too, never getting caught. Until, of course, one day he does and ends up in jail because of it.

Once in prison, he is assigned a privileged work-duty slot in the prison’s gym, where the other prisoners with gym duty let him in on their little secret–when the gym was built, a secret passage into town was also built. This lucky crew can visit the outside world regularly.

But once they trust him with that secret, they let him in on another–they are planning on robbing two banks in town. Why not? They have the perfect alibi!

This completely terrifies Harry. He is not a hardened criminal, just a helpless sap who ended up in prison. If he tells anyone, it will go badly for him. If he doesn’t tell anyone, he is probably participating and at minimum an accomplice in a bank robbery. What will he do?

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner is a deceptively complex book in a breezy comic crime wrapper, and I can’t write too much more about it without spoiling things I don’t want to spoil. One theme, that the reader will notice right away, is that of agency. Harry is never in control of his own situation, to the point where he accidentally ends up in a situation where he may have to rob a bank. There are other important themes wrapped in and around that one, and the reader tracks their development as he tracks the planning for the robbery and other events. By its end, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner has more of an impact than one would expect in such a seemingly light-hearted affair.

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner never should have gone out of print, and it’s terrific that Hard Case Crime has brought it back. Not to be missed.


News for week ending 2018-01-12 (open thread)

Over here, the big news is that you can now read the site on mobile devices. In other news…

Trent goes off-topic

TV review: “Bullet in the Face”

If you are visiting this site, chances are you like noir. If you are a fan of Donald Westlake’s catalog beyond the Parker novels, there is a good chance you also like comic crime. But what if you combined noir and comic crime?

That’s just what happens in “Bullet in the Face,” a TV series that lasted for just one six-episode season but is available on video and streaming. Max E. Williams is Gunter Vogler, a murderous, sociopathic career criminal who works for Tannhauser (Eddie Izzard), one of two mafia kingpins fighting for control of Brüteville, a city in a not-too-distant  dystopian future that reminded me of the out-of-time world in Payback (there is anachronistic technology) and the run-down cities of 2012’s Dredd.

Gunter is grievously wounded during a jewelry-store robbery by, yes, a bullet in the face. When he wakes up, he finds that he has had cosmetic surgery, giving him the face of the cop that he killed during the robbery. To make matters even more complicated, he was given this surgery so that he could pretend to be this cop while having all of Gunter’s knowledge of the criminal underworld in order to take out the organizations of both Tannhauser, who betrayed him (after being betrayed himself…it’s complicated), and Tannhauser’s rival Racken (Eric Roberts). To make things ever more complicated, he is assigned as partner to Lt. Karl Hagerman (Neil Napier), the original partner of the cop Gunter killed in the jewelry heist, who needless to say has some negative feelings toward Gunter.

Got all that?

“Bullet in the Face” is the creation of Alan Spencer, probably best known for the ’80s cop comedy “Sledge Hammer!,” a show I deeply love. There are some resemblances to that show–there’s a crazy cop, his straight-laced partner, and their boss, and of course the humor comes from the same mind. But Sledge was confined by his sense of justice–he was largely inspired by the Dirty Harry archetype, the cop prevented from giving criminals their just desserts by The System. You never know what angle Gunter is playing–he loves to kill, his gangland mistress is pregnant and he scarily wants a child to raise to be like him, and he also strangely seems to relish solving crimes.

“Bullet in the Face” is hobbled out of the gate by attempting to cram a lot of plot points (I didn’t even summarize them all) and a complicated milieu into a half hour pilot, actually only twenty minutes after commercials and credits are factored in–it really could have used an hour premier. A lot of the jokes fall flat and some just left me scratching my head. On a personal level, I often had trouble understanding Gunter’s outrageous German accent. (This is a common problem for me as I have mild hearing loss–I also have a difficult time understanding Electra on Netflix’s “Daredevil.)

So with all that, I didn’t think the series was all that good. It was an unholy mess with an iffy hit-to-miss joke ratio.

But then there’s the fact that I sat down thinking I’d watch one episode to kill some time and ended up watching all six episodes in one sitting. It is strangely compelling, never boring, and definitely outrageous. And, for the most part, it’s the outrageous moments that work the best–it’s very gory and there’s a lot of explicit sexual humor, both of which are among the funniest elements of the show. This is not Dortmunder-style comic crime.

Unfortunately, the series ended just as it seemed to be hitting its stride. The world, the players, and their dynamics were established and the story was rolling, and then, BOOM! It’s over.

This is one of the few shows or movies that I didn’t care for on first viewing that I will probably watch again, because I have the feeling that some things that didn’t work for me on first viewing may work better now that I’ve been steeped in its universe for a bit. And I may do something I almost never do and give it a third spin with the commentary on, just because I know Alan Spencer is a funny guy (he has a cameo stealing a severed head) and I’d like to hear what was going through his head when he created something as strange and out-there as “Bullet in the Face.”

The Mobile World of Parker

I have taken advantage of some improvements to WordPress to make The Violent World of Parker site much easier to view on mobile devices. It isn’t perfect and is somewhat limited, but at least you can read it, which you really couldn’t before without either terrific eyesight or a magnifying glass.

If you notice anything terribly wrong or weird about it, let me know. I doubt I can do too much to fix it, but I can try.

Book review: A Song to Die For by Mike Blakely

Creed Mason had come so close. He’d had a top ten country hit with his partner Dixie Houston and their band Dixie Creed, and their future looked bright. But then he’d been drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he saw some horrific things, killed a man, and ended up with a gruesome bullet wound that got him sent first to Japan for a long recovery and then to Texas, USA.

It’s now 1975. His old partner Dixie has gone on to huge solo success and wants nothing to do with him. Creed is trying to make it on his own in the burgeoning Austin music scene as part of the nascent Outlaw Country movement. Willie Nelson (just called Willie here, but it’s Willie Nelson) recommends Creed for a plum gig–band leader and lead guitarist for Luster Burnett, a country music legend who vanished entirely from pubic life many years prior but who is now eyeing a comeback.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the innocent niece of a Vegas mafia kingpin witnesses her uncle and his psychotic son Franco murdering one of their henchman who had fallen out of favor. She flees to Austin, hoping to get help from one of her former University of Texas sorority sisters. However, both end up dead as Franco tries to tie up loose ends.

Trying to find answers in these deaths is Texas Ranger Hooley Johnson, a curmudgeon approaching retirement age who nonetheless is deeply affected by the waste of two innocent lives with so much potential. Hooley is begrudgingly partnered with Mel Doolittle, a young, black, intelligent but wet-behind-the-ears FBI man from the Vegas office.

 A Song to Die For is neat–these two tales, the two musicians trying to make a comeback and the crime story, run parallel with no crossover until very late in the book. For most of it, it’s like reading two entertaining novels in different genres simultaneously, keeping the reader wondering and guessing about when and how the two paths will cross.

The fun is enhanced by Blakely’s writing style. He does not spend a lot of time describing things. Does a scene take place in a honky tonk? He’ll give enough detail to add some character, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Everyone who hasn’t been in one has seen them on TV or in movies and knows what they look like–why describe every spiderweb or initial carved into the bar? This efficiency helps the pages go by quickly, with a lot more action packed in than one would expect even in a book that crosses the 400-page mark.

The story is not always realistic, but Blakely’s exercise of his artistic license is well-deployed. It’s doubtful that a crackerjack band could come together as quickly as it does here, and Blakely knows this because he’s a musician himself with several albums to his credit, but it’s necessary to keep the two stories in sync, and who wants to read about months of practice?

It was fun for me to read about my town of Austin back in the ’70s, which was a pretty legendary time around here–I wasn’t around but people still talk about it. (It’s also nice that for the most part the geography is rendered correctly!) I’d like to see Blakely, who primarily writes Westerns and is a Spur award winner, tell a few more tales about my town in that time. He’s got plenty of good characters who could appear in another music story, another crime story, or another combination of the two.

A Song to Die For is an under-the-radar gem that lovers of music and/or crime fiction will enjoy, and those who know Austin will get an extra kick out of it. Worth checking out.

By the way: “Written in the Dust,” Creed Mason’s one hit song, is based on one of Mike Blakely’s own songs. I caught a couple of other Easter eggs, and I’m sure there are some I missed.

News for week ending 2018-01-05 (open thread)

This week I went off-topic, launching what I hope will be a fun new place for me and anyone else to hang out. Also:

At Trent goes off-topic

The Westlake Review marks a milestone

I’ve promoted it on several occasions, and it’s linked in the sidebar, but it’s possible that some of you here aren’t familiar with The Westlake Review.

Fred Fitch (totally his real name) set out to read and review all of Donald Westlake’s novels, with the exception of pseudonymous sleaze titles. And as of shortly before the end of 2017, he has, along with a passel of Westlake’s nonfiction and short stories.

Fred’s style is very different from mine. While I typically start with a plot teaser and then write just a few paragraphs on the book, he goes for in-depth analysis of the characters, themes, and how everything fits into the larger Westlake canon. His pieces aren’t really book reviews, but essays on the books. As a general rule, it’s better if you’ve read the book before you’ve read the piece on it.

If you haven’t bookmarked The Westlake Review yet, you should. As with VWOP, the posts often don’t age much as the books we write about were published some time ago, so there is oodles of great reading material in the archives.

So if you haven’t checked out The Westlake Review, you should. If you have, go back over there and say congratulations!



Trent goes off-topic

Greetings, all!

This site started out as a list of books on Geocities. It has evolved and grown, year after year (or most years, anyway), and eventually, for blog fodder and my own amusement, I started adding reviews and some coverage of crime fiction and film beyond things directly related to Parker or Donald Westlake. But everything added was at least in the same universe as these subjects if I squinted a bit. And people seemed to enjoy these digressions.

However, I frequently found myself with the urge to write about things that it was impossible to rationalize squeezing in here. I think what finally set me off was Paperbacks from Hell, my favorite book of last year, which is a great, beautiful, and hilarious look at horror paperbacks of the 70s and 80s. I tried to come up with an angle by which I could allow myself to cover it–lots of crime fiction novels are published as paperback originals! But I just couldn’t come up with a way that would make sense within the already-stretched boundaries I have established here, even though I think most of our readers would really enjoy the book.

So I decided to launch a side blog for things that are off-topic. It is called Trent Goes Off-topic. It will mostly be book, movie, and music reviews. It will be a considerably less formal affair than VWOP–I want to have fun writing for it, and I don’t want it to become a massive time-suck. (I have fun working on VWOP, but it most definitely is a massive time-suck.) I might post there daily. I might post there weekly. I might post there monthly. I’m not going to be too concerned about it.

I have two posts up so far, an introductory post and a review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which I finally saw last night. I do not yet have a review of Paperbacks from Hell up. I’ll need to reread that first, which will be a pleasure.

I’ll probably link to new posts there within the weekly roundup post here.

Anyway, I hope you’ll drop by the new digs and say hello. If you forget the URL, it’s linked in both the top menu and the sidebar.

Also: Now is a great time to remind everybody that co-blogger Nick also has another site, Existential Ennui, where he mostly covers books but has occasional forays into other media. His site is also linked in both the top menu and the sidebar, and I will also probably start linking to his new posts when I do the weekly roundup.

Levi Stahl on Parker and Donald Westlake on the White Rocket Podcast

Levi Stahl, as many of you know, is the man responsible for getting the Parker and Grofield novels back into print at the University of Chicago Press, as well as the brains behind the The Getaway Car, an anthology of Donald Westlake’s nonfiction writings. This past week, he appeared on the White Rocket Podcast with Van Allen Plexico to discuss The Getaway Car, Parker, and Donald Westlake. It’s a fun discussion, so give it a download and a listen!

You can get the episode here.



Book review: Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia is the first volume of the Second L.A. Quartet. The L.A. Quartet–The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz–covers the years 1946 to 1958 in Los Angeles. The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy–American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover–covers 1958 to 1972, on a national scale.

The Second L.A. Quartet places real-life and fictional characters from the first two bodies of work in Los Angeles during World War II, as significantly younger people. These three series span thirty-one years and will stand as one novelistic history.

–James Ellroy, Perfidia

The event that kicks off Perfidia, the first novel of James Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet, is death, which should surprise no one familiar with Ellroy’s other works. On the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bodies of a Japanese family are discovered, with a mysterious note apparently left by the patriarch possibly indicating foreknowledge of the Day Which Will Live in Infamy. While the family appears to have committed the act of Japanese ritual suicide known as harakiri or seppuku, there are enough oddities at the crime scene to spark doubts in the mind of Hideo Ashida, a brilliant Japanese-American police chemist.

However, for political reasons related to the swiftly-ramping-up internment program for people of Japanese descent, the Mayor’s office and the LAPD want the investigation wrapped up quickly, either ruled a suicide or Jap-on-Jap homicide.

In the aftermath of the bombing and US entering World War II, the citizens of L.A. go a bit mad, as if the world is ending soon so earthly pleasures must be indulged in as much as possible before the Japanese subs off the coast and planes in the air pulverize the city into dust. No one is sleeping (except for with each other), most definitely including LAPD officers Capt. William H. Parker and Sgt. Dudley Smith.

Parker, the sometimes-tarnished conscience of the LAPD is locked in a mostly-undeclared cold war with Smith, the sometimes-saintly representative of the corruption of the institution, often without either of them realizing it.

Caught up in the current of both the metaphoric war and the real one are Dr. Ashida and Kay Lake, the latter a young bohemian brimming with the urge to tap into the excitement of the day, whatever that is. The three cops and the young lady will see and experience more before January 1, 1942 than many will in a lifetime.

James Ellroy thinks of himself as more of a writer of historical fiction than as a crime fiction novelist these days, but readers of his previous works need not fear on that count. Perfidia, named for a popular song of the era, translates as “perfidy.” The murder, intrigue, corruption, betrayal, and shifting alliances of an Ellroy epic are all here.

However, Perfidia has a number of problems. As Scott Timberg notes about Ellroy tying his vast canon all together, “Reading Ellroy can be overwhelming in any setting, but the new novel might be incomprehensible without some sense of his earlier books.” As chronologically, this is the first, there is no need for this, but the reader is subjected to a torrent of names, often without context. The quote that opens this review precedes the Dramatis Personae at the end of the book. It says something about the book that it needs one.

Ellroy is also constantly dropping in references to obscure pop culture figures and sticking in foreign phrases. I think of myself as pretty culturally literate, but I was using Kindle’s X-ray and translate features constantly.

Characters frequently talk like no human would, the worst example being Kay Lake, with Dudley Smith sometimes a close second.

But the biggest problem is that the events seem too small for such a big book. Those expecting an epic like L.A. Confidential or American Tabloid are likely to walk away saying, “Is that all there is?”

Which isn’t to say the book is bad or boring. I found myself reasonably enthralled with the twists and turns and gave no thought to putting it down. But of the books in this continuity (I’ve read all but The Big Nowhere and White Jazz), Perfidia is easily the least. Longtime fans of Ellroy will want to check it out anyway. New readers should start elsewhere (Underworld U.S.A. should be read chronologically; it does not matter for the first quartet). I do fear that because this one is the first chronologically, readers new to Ellroy may start here and go no further. They would be missing out on some of the best American fiction, crime or otherwise, of all time, so let us hope that doesn’t happen.

Related Posts:

Review: American Tabloid by James Ellroy

Review: The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy

Review: Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy

“Perfidia” by Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra


The Second L.A. Quartet

The First L.A. Quartet

Underworld U.S.A.