Shank: Tool’s Law I

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ShankWritten by Roy Harper — David Roney has done bad things and he is paying for his transgressions. He is locked up in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known in music, myth and legend as Parchman Farm. It is full of brutal men, kept under lock and key by equally brutal guards. The surrounding landscape is brutal, too. There are no trees, no bushes, and no vegetation other than what is grown in the vast and flat expanse of earth reclaimed from the waters of the Mississippi Delta.

Roney has the nickname Tool because he can fashion a weapon from the most harmless and innocent household object. No-one with half a brain goes around inside The Farm without a shank of some kind. Maybe it’s a plastic toothbrush with razor blades embedded, or perhaps it’s a bed spring sharpened to a cruel point.

Roney has his own moral code, and it has enabled him to survive… up to a point. But enough is enough. He spots a weakness in the complex security system of the penitentiary, and with the help of two other inmates, manages to escape.

With imagination and research a good crime writer can convince you that you are almost anywhere in the world, at any point in history. That’s the nature of the job. For sheer first-hand authenticity, however, no-one is going to be challenging Roy Harper’s account of life in an American jail anytime soon. Why? Simple – the author is serving an 88-year stretch in the very prison that he has Tool Roney escaping from. His writing is vivid and direct. Every grating noise, every bad smell and every drop of sweat is punched home, line after line. The testosterone crackles off the page.

The grim descriptions of life in prison are certainly not romanticised, and will stay with you long after the book is finished. Roney’s attempts to outpace and outsmart his pursuers could well be summed up in the title of a celebrated song by another Mississippi resident, the bluesman Robert Johnson. Hellhound on my Trail is a perfect description of Roney as the forces of law and order – both human and canine – tighten the net. He is exhausted and desperate, and his body is closing down on him thanks because he’s been bitten by a Cottonmouth snake.

The narrative is thrilling and totally convincing until Roney is rescued by a wild child hillbilly drug dealer called Rose. A prisoner banged up in a brutal jail can be forgiven for fantasies about life on the outside, particularly if they involve a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, as Harper leaves behind the tight constrictions of time and place that worked so well for him while Roney is in The Farm, after Rose appears the story tends to wander and become more fanciful, and the author’s voice begins to lose authority.

Regarding how Harper’s manuscript escaped from Parchman Farm, his publisher says” “With full body searches and cell strip-downs a constant feature of the regime at Parchman, paper and writing materials had to be smuggled in regularly and the manuscripts smuggled out before discovery. The editor’s contacts with Roy Harper would be via a cellphone held against his cell bars by an inmate with his back to the guards: ready to pocket it and walk away before discovery. But discovered it always was… and replaced again.” It looks as though Roney’s adventures are only just beginning, however, and that the scene is set for further adventures.

For more crime fiction set in prison, check out The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson, and Lock Down Blues by Ray Wilcox.

Crime Wave Press

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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