Published by Profile Books.
A true crime/memoir title about a very long haul in prison just didn’t seem to be that it would really be for me. But, one of the many reasons that blogging/reviewing is such an enjoyable thing is the very fact that every now and again it gives to opportunity to stretch as a reader and try new things that aren’t in the usual comfort zone or that normally pass by the radar.
So, very pleased to say that I surprised myself with In the Place of Justice – an all-encompassing diary/history of one man’s coming to terms with his incarceration in the prison system in Louisiana from 1961 (when he was just 19) through to 2005.
Wilbert Rideau confessed fully to his crime – the killing of a bank teller after a bank robbery he held went badly wrong, but the legal and criminal justice machines took over, and across a backdrop of corruption and racism events took hold that resulted in his escaping a proper trial and the possibility of the electric chair for many years. To coin the phrase ‘get busy living or get busy dying’ which I believe was ironically from another classic
(although fictional) tale of prison life (The Shawshank Redemption), Rideau chooses to lose himself within the role of a writer within Angola prison, beginning to hone his craft with articles and stories for The Angolite prison newspaper.
So, whilst the legal machine continues to rumble away in the background throughout his years in prison, often plucking him up and throwing him back in front of legal teams and representatives to discuss his own case, he continues to write – to concentrate his energies on documenting prison life in general and highlighting other areas and cases with little to do with his own plight.
Along the way, he uses the newspaper to fight problems, to rectify faults within the electric chair system – he questions where others did not/would not.
Through changes in Prison staff and fellow inmates, Rideau has times where he is fully supported and others where he treads dangerous lines of potentially unleashing tides of corruption and damaging those around him.
It’s a book that deserves time to be read – after all this is a journal of the largest chunk of a man’s life. Give a book like this the time it deserves and its author certainly more than delivers on their part of the deal.
I must confess that, with a sprawling tale and a central black character in a US prison scenario, I couldn’t fail to hear Morgan Freeman’s voice throughout – and this is a book that would make a compelling tv mini-series or movie too.
It raises questions as to whether in some ways Rideau was saved for a purpose, to do the job he did of voicing what prison life was really like through his newspaper work and then later into television documentaries and films.
For a simple act of violence, a red mist moment, he seems to pay back with so much good inside – turning this into very much a life-affirming tale where he takes every opportunity thrown at him, even when initially they appear to be bad situations.
I found one particular scene at the end of the novel, one that deals with loss, very moving – and, coming totally out of left field, I found it very unexpected.
Throughout the book I had to keep reminding myself constantly that this was a work of true crime memoir and not one of fiction and, despite pretty much knowing how things would turn out, it kept my interest through to the end.
For me, In the Place of Justice, worked in the same way as the excellent Grand Central Winter by Lee Stringer (which dealt with homelessness on the streets of New York).
They are books that give more than enough insight into what their author’s worlds were really like, compelling, interesting and thought-provoking enough, but enough to make the reader realise that they are worlds they would never want to experience first hand.
I feel very fortunate to have read In the Place of Justice – a world captured so well on the page.
Keith B Walters