Every few years I come across a novel that embodies all the elements that fill me with joy, satisfaction, and stimulation as a reader. “The Prison” by Joe Edd Morris is such a novel.
“The Prison” is an exciting murder mystery led by amateur sleuth Shell Ferguson, who uncovers clues in disarming and lively ways. “The Prison” is also a rich and thoughtful family drama as Shell must confront the loss of his wife and the imprisonment of his grandson Cal.
“The Prison” is an exposé on the secrets of penitentiary life, everything from how inmates make very primitive alcohol to how they engage in underground forms of communication like “fishing.” “The Prison” is a suspense-filled thriller, marked by daring escapes, hidden camps, and brazen attacks.
Finally, “The Prison” is a wonderful piece of literary fiction, eloquently written with its nuanced depiction of the flat Mississippi Delta landscape and the intriguing characters who inhabit it.
In other words, “The Prison” is the rarest of novels: a deep, thoughtful exploration that is also a fun read.
A memorable character who is infinitely likable, the 79-year-old Shell ties all the disparate qualities of the novel together. As he copes with the loss of his wife in a fire, Shell must summon the inner strength and intellect to comfort his wrongfully imprisoned grandson and to investigate the crimes that destroyed his family.
And boy, the unspeakable acts Shell discovers. Without spoiling the climax, let’s just say Shell encounters the most disturbing elements of today’s society and must summon all of his shrewd resourcefulness to combat the evil he confronts.
What makes “The Prison” so powerful is Morris’ ability to ground all of the actions in everyday reality.
The behaviors and even the small heroics of the main characters are quite credible. Shell, Cal, and those agents attempting to thwart rising threats take on their tasks with world-weary awareness and humor. Whether its investigating the arson scene of his wife’s death or going back over incidents preceding the death of a prominent judge, Shell is patient and methodically uncovers truths that reside not only on the periphery of a landscape but in the recesses of a mind.
A prison psychologist for many years, Morris writes with an effortless command of the intricacies of both penal life and subconscious motivations. Furthermore, the conversations between Shell and the Mississippi Bureau Investigators as they confront a building threat of domestic terrorism are authentically gripping.
Ultimately, the murder investigation and the subsequent manhunt will lead to a rip-roaring climax as Cal and Shell confront great dangers to themselves, their families, and the Mississippi Delta central to the fabric of their lives.
In the opening of “The Prison,” Shell points out how the flat Mississippi Delta plays tricks on the eyes. Like the landscape, the novel is rife with surprises, most tellingly in the way the story comes together. Given the complex nature of the novel, the title “The Prison” takes on a multitude of guises, yet a paradoxical wonder of the work is that the reader feels a euphoric liberation upon rifling through the final pages. That’s what happens when a novel has so many pleasures of so many levels that upon its conclusion, the reader returns to the beginning.
Michael Hartnett of New York is the author of “Generation Dementia,” “Fools in the Magic Kingdom” and his latest, “The Blue Rat,” about the underground in New York, is due out in May. He teaches at Long Island University.