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.