Book Review: The Four Stages of Cruelty by Keith Hollihan

Title: The Four Stages of Cruelty
Author: Keith Hollihan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press / Thomas Dunne Books
Genre: Crime Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-312-59247-9
PP: 304 Pages
Source: Author
Price: $25.99
Rating: 5/5

“Four Stages of Cruelty” is a precise description of life behind bars as seen through both the prisoner’s and the guard’s viewpoints. It’s chilling. Kali is one of the few female guard’s at her facility and she feels like an outsider. Nineteen year old Josh is one of the youngest and newest prisoners and is completely lost as he tries to settle into life behind bars. Hollihan tells his story through both Kali and Josh’s eyes though Josh’s voice rings truer.

Josh’s next door cellmate Crawley has drawn a cartoon booklet and when feels his life is endangered he gives it to Josh for safekeeping. Josh doesn’t know what the drawings mean but senses they’re important so he tries to pass the booklet to Kali when she escorts him to his father’s funeral. Kali refuses to take it but continues to worry about its significance. She begins to investigate as riots break out in the prison knowing the booklet and the escalating violence are related.

How can you tell who’s right and wrong when everyone around you seems to have ulterior motives? What is the nature of evil and goodness, and who gets to define that and why? Are people capable of lasting change or will they take advantage of you for being compassionate?

The lines between good and bad are constantly blurred in this novel, and the tension comes from guard Kali Williams’ struggle with the byzantine interests at play within the prison and what those interests say about the more nefarious aspects of human nature. The dialogue is spot-on and Hollihan’s writing is so convincing, I thought he had to have been a corrections officer or convict in a previous life (he’s just talented as hell and did incredible research, it turns out).

I like both literary and crime fiction, but I really love novels that blur the lines between those uber-genres. This is one of those books. In some ways it reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Kali Williams as Marlowe), but it also had the kinetic energy of a James Ellroy novel.

There are lots of twists and turns and a great ending in this book. Hollihan is very successful in keeping the reader’s interest though Kali comes across as a bit mechanical. His play with who is more imprisoned, the jailer or the jailed, is fascinating and clearly delineated; the best part of the book in my opinion. I can’t wait to read more from Hollihan.

You can also purchase the book here on Flipkart

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