Lurid, profane and immensely dark, Keith Hollihan’s descent into the annals of Ditmarsh Penitentiary makes for a serviceable, pulpy page-turner. It’s a mystery thriller that follows the misadventures of Corrections Officer Kali Williams as she uncovers plots of torture and murder that have been carried out by corrupt guards. The story winds through many sordid accounts of hidden drugs and homemade stilettos as well as the secret political alliances and barter economies that take place behind steel doors. This behind-the-bars look at prison life is presented realistically and is The Four Stages of Cruelty’s greatest strength.
Kali is pressed into running an illegal errand into the outside world with a young inmate named Josh, a convicted girlfriend-killer whose meek demeanor belies the explosive passions that delivered him to Ditmarsh. Josh is a comic book artist, too, and has come into the possession of an underground work, The Four Stages of Cruelty, which chronicles some of the abuse that happens inside the institution. Some of the characters — including a one-legged lifer named Roy — also believe it to be a treasure map of sorts.
Roy is a stand in for Long John Silver and Josh his cabin boy, Jim, and Hollihan makes a stab at retelling this classic tale through these prisoners. That attempt falls a bit flat and the author’s oddball convention of switching from first- to third-person narration keeps one on edge as they’re reading, though not in a good way. It’s more irritating than scintillating.
Realistic dialogue and the bizarre social exchanges between prisoners, guards and the double agents within keep things interesting but the electricity of the dialogue seems spent by an author trying to connect too many dots. Hollihan’s queer drifts from conventional, linear narratives rattle what might have otherwise been a tight noir trip into the depths. Grade: C