The author of Come and Find Me (Headline) on her favourite prisoners...
Some of the best characters in crime fiction belong behind bars. Think of Hannibal Lector taunting Clarice from his cell, or Paul Sheldon shackled to Annie Wilkes’s bed. The dynamic between captive and captor, like that between hunter and hunted, lies at the heart of many great works of narrative fiction. Who can forget the horror of Magwitch’s face looming over Pip in Great Expectations, or Mrs Rochester lunging at her gaoler husband in Jane Eyre? The Man in the Iron Mask, Robinson Crusoe, Dracula, Albert Camus’s Outsider — the list goes on and on. When I was a teenager, The Prisoner was my favourite TV show, so perhaps I was destined to write about this stuff. But I’m not alone. Crime writers and readers have long been fascinated by prison and prisoners. Is it simply because captivity is a consequence of crime, making prisons a natural watering-hole for detectives? Or are we drawn to the destructive tension that simmers in places of real (or imagined) incarceration? The psychological landscape is endlessly fertile, everything from isolation to Stockholm Syndrome.
In my latest book, Come and Find Me, a dangerous convict is on the run. Mickey Vokey’s possible hiding places include the homes of two women who wrote to him in prison. Ruth is an evangelist who believes she can save his soul, while Lara’s obsession is more corporeal. But the roles of saviour and slave become increasingly blurred as the hunt progresses. Who is really trapping whom? And can anyone escape unharmed?
All this got me thinking about my favourite prisoners in fiction.
The Glass Cell was inspired by a prison correspondence between Patricia Highsmith and an inmate who wrote her a fan letter. In the novel, Highsmith’s hero, Philip Carter, has spent six years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit — at least, not yet. Trust Highsmith to turn a story on its head, and in such style.
In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, 12-year-old Steven Lamb’s prison correspondence with serial child killer Arnold Avery was never going to end well. Their cat and mouse chase across Exmoor is a masterpiece of pursuit. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is widely studied as an early example of American feminist fiction, but it’s also mind-bendingly frightening. You’ll never look at your bedroom the same way again.
The Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews is the first in a florid series of stories about siblings trapped by terrible relatives. I devoured this pulp paperback as a teenager, and you can find modern versions of the same theme in books like Gather the Daughters, and The Roanoke Girls.
Rather more wonderful is Ali Land’s spectacular debut, Good Me Bad Me. With her mother awaiting trial for serial murder, Annie/Milly must decide how far she feels responsible for what took place in her family home, and whether she’s able to break free from her mother’s legacy.
All these books, as well as the classics mentioned in my opening paragraph, blend terror and anticipation, despair and hope. Take away a man’s freedom (or a woman’s) and what are you left with? It’s one of the classic heroic trials. No wonder we keep writing about it.