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Help I Am Being Held Prisoner


Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

I miss Donald E. Westlake. He was a prolific author of mysteries and thrillers who never, ever sacrificed quality for quantity. I first encountered him through his shorter fiction in Playboy (I really did read it for the articles back in the day) and moved on to his many, many novels published under his own name and under multiple pseudonyms. It was hard to keep up with Westlake, given that in the 1950s and ’60s, books would appear and then disappear within a week or two from those wonderful revolving wire racks.

However, thanks to the absolutely indispensable Hard Case Crime publishing imprint in our modern era, some of those titles are making a resurrected appearance in a more permanent form. The latest book of Westlake’s to see the light of a new day is a lighthearted caper novel, HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER, which stands up remarkably well some four decades after its first appearance (and over 30 years since its last).

"Pick up this well-written, exquisitely plotted and, yes, really funny caper novel and see what all of the excitement was and is about."

HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER is narrated by Harold, whose proclivity for practical joking goes very wrong and results in a chain reaction that ends with him being sentenced to a state penitentiary. Harold (he has a last name, which I am not revealing here since it is a crude --- and hilarious --- punchline that Westlake manages to keep fresh throughout the novel) just wants to keep his head down and do his time, but that, of course, would make for a relatively dull book. Thus he is assigned to a somewhat cushy prison job that puts him in the middle of one of the prison’s tougher gangs. They actually aren’t really terrible guys after all (for convicts), and they have a secret that they reveal to Harold after a probationary period.

The secret is that there is a tunnel running from a section of the prison to a local residence that permits those convicts privy to this knowledge to go back and forth from the prison to the local town and lead semi-normal lives. This luxury comes at a cost, as all luxuries do, so that the cons have to raise money on the outside in the only way they know how. Tired of acquiring money piecemeal, they hatch a plan to rob two local banks at the same time, with their alibi being that they were imprisoned at the time the heists took place. It’s a bit of a Rube Goldberg plan but quite amusing in its execution.

Among the many problems facing them is that Harold, unknown to them all, continues to play practical jokes whenever possible, both outside and inside the prison. The warden is well aware of Harold’s proclivity. Accordingly, when some very visible jokes begin popping up, he blames Harold. This puts a potential monkey wrench not only in the bank heist scheme but also in some other plans that Harold has on the outside. As one might expect, nothing goes quite the way it’s supposed to go, but that’s part of the fun of a Westlake novel.

My understanding is that Hard Case Crime is planning to release some other long-absent Westlake books on an annual basis over the next few years, and if that doesn’t give you a reason to keep living, your pulse might have stopped already. Pick up this well-written, exquisitely plotted and, yes, really funny caper novel and see what all of the excitement was and is about.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 23, 2018

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
by Donald E. Westlake

  • Publication Date: February 13, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Hard Case Crime
  • ISBN-10: 1785656821
  • ISBN-13: 9781785656828