So I've confessed my terrible shortcomings with reading eBooks plenty, but let me tell you 'bout one that I ripped through awful quick. The Bitch by (ex-convict) Les Edgerton is a cold-hearted tale of an ex-con getting his life together just in time to have it torn apart by associations from his past. The underlying tension and dread that pushed me through this one is contained there in the title - which refers to the third strike laws that put a 'ha-bitch-ual' offender away for a mandatory life sentence. I've read very few other books with such a strong looming threat hanging over the protagonist even in the quietest moments (some of which are named later in this piece by Les himself - so I won't list 'em here).
Convict lit is a particularly potent strain of crime and mystery fiction whether the character is reformed or a recidivist as their experience inside puts them in a club most of their straight readership know next to nothing about, and their experience outside is lent so much dramatic weight - picking that fruit is awfully tempting for a writer... However -
I recently met Les and had a lengthy conversation about the convict experience and prison as depicted in popular culture and he shot holes in so many of my favorites, I finally just asked him to make me a list of the stuff where they got it right.
The following is what he responded with:
Jed Ayres and I recently had a conversation about the veracity of prison life in crime novels and films… well, less of a conversation than an event where Jed listened to me rant about the lack of such veracity… and the upshot was that he’s asked me to write a bit where I list the books and films that do the prison or ex-con or recidivism thing correctly.
Since all my teachers way back when in grade school were unanimous in their assessment that “Les doesn’t play well with others” and “defies authority.” and since I still (happily) fit that definition, I thought instead of that list—which would be uber-short—I’d instead talk about why I think most novels and films get it wrong.
Since I’ve already gone off the reservation and departed from Jed’s instructions, if you find yourself reading this, that means he decided to print it anyway, and that’s probably because I know where he lives…
(That’s an example of a literary technique called “irony,” as I don’t think Jed is afraid of me or much of anything. If I was six and a half feet tall, I probably wouldn’t be either…)
Here’s my thoughts on why prisons and criminals are rarely portrayed accurately:
1. Convicts and criminals aren’t writing or even reading novels. Besides myself and a handful of other excons, there aren’t many writers among prison populations. Eddie Bunker comes to mind and I’m sure there are a couple of others, but I’m not familiar with them. In the main, the worlds of criminals and prisons are being written about by outsiders. When I was in Pendleton, the average educational level was at third grade. Which means there aren’t many inmates even reading novels about their worlds.
And, while authors are often meticulous about researching unknown or unfamiliar cultures of their books—for instance, most who write war novels either were in a war or have talked to a great many who have served and/or have read and researched prodigious amounts of material about such conflicts. People who write medical thrillers usually are doctors or other medical people or have done considerable research to get their facts straight. Lawyers write legal thrillers. Cops write police procedurals. Literary writers write about their navels and how important they are to the overall cosmos. And so on—whatever the category of novel. Not so much with crime novels or novels set in prisons. Who’s going to call them out for inaccuracies anyway? Given that most convicts don’t read or if they do, not all that much, and given that most convicts don’t have a forum to voice their opinions, crime fiction writers feel pretty much free to invent whatever they want to and who’s to know? Editors and agents are much the same.
2. Inaccurate reporting. This is one of the biggest sources of misconceptions. When reporters converge in a prison or talk to most ex-cons or criminals, almost always they’re the recipient of a shuck-job.
In the case of inmates, most inmates, when interviewed, tell sincere and convincing… lies. Why? A couple of reasons, one being unrealistic hope. Even if a guy is doing double-life with no parole, the only thing this guy has left is hope. Hope that someone of influence will see his pathetic tale of woe, his protestations of innocence, and do something about it. Maybe the governor will see or read his interview and think, Wow! This guy is really a victim or innocent and I better set him free. Maybe some liberal do-gooder will lobby on his behalf. So, they tell… lies. And the reporter eats ‘em up, as do a large portion of a gullible public. Most inmates, like most alcoholics and other drug-users, are skilled conmen. They can come across like Billy Graham on the Sunday-go-to-meeting. They’ve been doing it all their lives. (For a list of Les's favorite prison myths and inaccuracies go to Hardboiled Wonderland)
3. Immersion reporting. This is what I call a reporter who does a ride-along or spends the night in jail to get the “feel” or the environment. While ride-alongs probably do give at least the flavor of police work, spending the night in the drunk tank does very little.
Years ago, a friend of mine arranged to spend the night in a maximum security prison in a cell so he could experience prison life.
There is absolutely not the slightest scintilla of a chance that spending the night thusly would deliver any semblance whatsoever of an inmate’s experience. For starters, this is a guy fully protected from the population. The superintendent of this joint would never in a million years allow him to be in any danger whatsoever. That’s kind of one of the biggest elements or a true prison experience. Second, he was in for one night and pretty well aware that he’d be going home the next day. Not even close to the guy who’s been inside for two years with eight to go. There’s just no value whatsoever to such an “experience.” It’s kind of like camping out in Macy’s outdoor department for a night to see what it’s like to be a mountain man in 1700. Pure B.S. I wouldn’t have a problem with this except that the guy actually thought he’d had a “real” experience, when all he’d been doing was playing cowboys and Indians and hadn’t even rode a horse other than the broom he borrowed from his mommy… To top it off, he then used his “experience” to inform a novel he wrote.
“Inform” it of what? That he’s a rich little punk who can arrange a campout in a joint? There’s a word for guys like this.
I won’t read any more of this guy’s work. I already know what a phony he is.
For years, I used to go visit the guys in my “alma mater,” Pendleton. Occasionally, I was allowed to bring a guest. We’d spend all day with the guys in the barber school, chinnin’ with them. Not actually a realistic day. The day we’d be there they’d shut the school down and not bring in inmates for haircuts. But, it was somewhat informative. Mostly, I’d bring in criminal justice majors from the school I was teaching at. It gave them at least a look up close at inmates. Most of what the inmates told them was a shuck, although they didn’t know it. Non-criminals are really suckers for anything cons tell them. But, even though this experience wasn’t totally realistic, it was much more so than what the other guy went through in his night in the joint. However, if he’d been a reporter rather than a student, anything he printed from that experience would be b.s. I listened to what some of these guys were telling him and it was mostly laughable. Except, he took it as gospel. Cons are really good at… conning. What we call “jaffin’”.
There are a number of terms that when I see them I know this writer doesn’t have a clue. A couple-three of the most egregious are: screws, bulls, rat, and shivs. Instantly, I know this to be a writer who got his info from Jack Webb TV shows, bad novels, 50’s movies starring Spencer Tracy, or from seeing a performance of Westside Story. The instant I see the word “shiv,” that’s a book I’m never going to finish.
Who writes believable prison scenes? Besides Bunker and me, Ray Banks does a great job. Check out his Wolf Tickets. And, Ray makes an effort. He ran the mss by me to see what I thought and I told him it was spot on. Most writers don’t bother to vette their characters at all. There might be others and I apologize for not knowing about them if there are. There are a few movies. Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers is, in my opinion, the best portrayal of the true criminal mind I can think of. And, Woody kind of knows—his dad was right up the road from me in the federal joint at Terre Haute, Indiana. And, what made his performance realistic wasn’t the dialog or the actions or any of that, but it was his attitude. Perfect attitude for many criminals. His performance showed an actor who’d at least been around real-life criminals.
There are lots of other reasons writers get prison wrong. Just running out of room…
Les is the author of many books including the novels The Bitch, Just Like That, and The Perfect Crime, and nonfiction titles like Hooked and Finding Your Voice. He teaches writing and can be found at his blog.
Jedidiah Ayres writes fiction and keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.
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