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Literature / Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

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In this Donald Westlake story, due to lingering bitterness about his Unfortunate Name, Harry Künt has spent his entire life as a compulsive practical joker. One of his jokes inadvertently causes a car accident, leading to his being sent to prison. While there, Harry discovers that the prisoners running the gymnasium (Phil, Jerry, Bob, Joe, Max, Eddie, and Billy) have access to a tunnel, which they use to come and go from the prison as they please. Happy at the idea of a little freedom, Harry accepts their offer to join the group, only to discover they support themselves by committing robberies. Harry finds himself drafted into a role for their upcoming bank robbery, and he uses his joking expertise to desperately get his way out of the robbery (such as by setting off stink bombs near the bank before the planned robbery). He also finds himself being blamed for a series of practical jokes in the prison which he is honestly ignorant of. And, of course, he gets a romantic subplot after a while.


  • Actually Pretty Funny: Everyone, except maybe Phil, is amused once the truth about Harry being the practical joker who was sabotaging them comes out.
  • Affably Evil: Except for maybe Billy, all of the prisoners can be genuinely nice guys, who are pretty loyal to each other, with most planning to go straight once they get out of prison with the money they're saving up. That being said, the group in general, and Phil in particular can be absolutely menacing when they swear revenge against the practical joker, and could very well kill Harry if they decide he knows too much. It's specifically noted that at least one of the group (and maybe as many as three of them) voted to kill Harry and Marian after he told her about the tunnel, although the majority disagreed.
  • Becoming the Mask: Eddie gets a little too in-character when he and Harry disguise themselves as soldiers to steal supplies from an army base.
  • The Casanova: Max is good at meeting and attracting women, and is by no means a chaste character.
  • The Comically Serious: Eddie, who is constantly displaying military rigidity.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: A villainous version. The original tunnel user, Vasacampa, merely went out to see his wife and kids during the day (they bought the house at the other ends of the tunnel). Subsequent tunnel users saw how it could let them commit crimes with a perfect alibi.
  • Determinator: Six aborted attempts to rob two local banks right before the bi-monthly payday only make Phil more stubborn and angry.
    Phil: I am going to get those banks. I'm telling you, and I'm telling those banks, and I'm telling God and all the saints, and I'm telling everybody who wants to hear it. I'm not giving up. I'm going to be here twice a month, every month, for the rest of my life if it takes that long, and you fucking people are going to be here with me, and those fucking banks are going to be waiting over there, and one of these times, I'm going to rob those two banks.
  • Dirty Cop: Guards Flax and Muttgood take bribes from Phil and the others to look away from their activities, although they don't know about the tunnel.
  • Dumb Muscle: Billy is the least imaginative of the tunnel users and also the most physically imposing.
  • Easily Forgiven: By the time Harry finally comes clean about being the prankster, the rest of the group like him too much to seek revenge over it.
  • Embarrassing Cover Up: When Harry and Eddie are delayed outside of the prison, the rest of the group get Muttgood to cover for them by claiming the two are having sex on the roof.
  • Excrement Statement: Peter gets himself sent back to prison (deliberately) for taking crap in a graveyard.
  • Fake Out Makeout: Harry (a prisoner whose snuck out of the prison but intends to go back) and Marian use this to keep a guard from the prison they run into at a party from seeing Harry's face and arresting him for being an escaped prisoner.
  • The Fundamentalist: Father Flynn the prison chaplain is very fiery in his condemnations of anyone who would deface a bible and not willing to consider Harry's claims of innocence.
  • Genius Bruiser: Jerry is the second biggest of the bunch, and arguably the most thoughtful and insightful of the cons.
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: Max first was sent to prison as a student radical, became criminalized inside and was rearrested for burglary after he got out. Harry (a prankster who accidentally made some politicians get into an accident and has them seek revenge) tries to avert this by keeping from taking part in the crimes of the group, but eventually gets dragged in.
  • Happily Married: Bob and his wife Alice (the current caretaker of the house at the other end of the tunnel).
  • "Help! Help! Trapped in Title Factory!": The message "HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER" begins to appear in various kinds of goods produced in the prison soon after Harry arrives there. With every message that appears, Harry finds himself more trapped between the rock of the warden and the hard place of his fellow convicts. Subverted: Harry wasn't sending the messages, it was the gardener who was about to be released and didn't want to leave.
  • Hidden Depths:
    • Billy, the most violent of the group, and the one least friendly with Harry is one of the first to start laughing at the memories and forgive him when they find out he was the joker.
    • The culprit behind the pranks Harry is being accused of turns out to be Andy Butler.
  • In Vino Veritas: When he admits how he used to be a practical joker Harry reflects that the alcohol being served at the time contributed to that.
  • Karmic Trickster: Some (but not many) of Harry's pranks fall under this, such as when he tampers with the water heater to give the Joy Boys a cold shower.
  • Last Girl Wins: Harry goes on dates with three girls with Max, and its the last one who he ends up with. Max also gets more serious with his final girlfriend.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: It's heavily implied Harry would have been transferred to a machine shop and died in an "accident" if he'd turned down the initial offer to join the crew.
  • Meaningful Rename: Harry starts calling himself Harry Kent while outside of the prison and decides to legally change his name to it, shedding his past as a prankster.
  • Might as Well Not Be in Prison at All: Obviously, the tunnel that everyone goes in and out of at will serves to this affect for the prisoners to sneak out to pull off crimes or just enjoy freedom.
  • Mistaken for Badass: Harry, due to his sentencing transscript vaguely wording the circumstances behind his arrest to just emphasize the bodily injury aspect of it.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: One of the hostages during the bank robbery calls her husband to make an excuse for why she won't be home and he accuses her of having an affair, causing her to angrily say he can call back and she'll still be there.
  • Monochrome Casting: All of the major characters (with the possible exception of Billy) are stated or implied to be white.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Harry feels guilt for stealing Peter, his first cellmates, false teeth, only for the man (who has no means to replace them with) to be released before he can find them.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Billy, and to a lesser extent Eddie, have a lot of mean, suspicious moments and are full of creepy stories about people they saw killed or injured over the years.
  • Noodle Incident: It's never revealed why Eddie is in prison.
  • Not Used to Freedom: Both Andy and Peter don't want to get out of prison due to having spent too much of their lives there, with Peter getting himself sent back and Andy actually circulating a petition asking to stay.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: One of the bank employees is accused of making excuses to avoid a dinner with his wife's family when he's forced to call and say he's working late. He hotly denies this, but is smiling a little buit, in spite of the circumstances, as he hangs up.
  • The Old Convict: Andy, Harry's second cellmate is a genial old man, and long-term prisoner well ingrate into the prison system, and good for advice.
  • Posthumous Character: Vasacampa, the original tunnel user, died of a heart attack several years ago.
  • The Prankster: Harry has spent his entire life pranking everyone he can as his form of lashing out at the world. It also turns out that Andy is one too.
  • Prison Rape: Harry is warned to steer clear of a group called "The Joy Boys" for this reason, at least until he has Phil's gang as protectors.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Warden Gadabout recognizes that Harry doesn't really belong in prison and tries to be accommodating to him. When Harry is accused of pulling pranks he does give weight to the circumstantial evidence but also gives ample consideration to Harry's arguments for his innocence.
  • Scare 'Em Straight: The stressful thought of having the prisoners connect his practical jokes inside the prison to the jokes he uses to delay the robbery eventually helps Harry give up on his habitual joking.
  • Shellshocked Veteran: It's ambiguous if Eddie is one, or was just a light-hearted version of a Sociopathic Soldier from the start.
  • True Companions: The prisoners actually have this vibe by the end even forgiving Harry when they find out the truth.
  • Unfortunate Names: Harry Künt, which is often mispronounced as hairy cunt. Harry describes the name as his Freudian Excuse for becoming a practical joker lashing out at everyone else.
  • Wardens Are Evil: Warden Gadabout mostly averts this, being a polite, thoughtful man. He can be prone to throwing a prisoner in solitary in a moment of temper, but apologizes for it later after having time to think it over.