A female corrections officer's humanity is tested by unthinkable brutality at a hellish maximum-security prison after she begins probing its secret criminal underground.
Hollihan's astonishing debut is told from the perspective of Kali Williams, a 39-year-old guard who is at greater mortal risk patrolling the creepy corridors of the Midwestern Ditmarsh Penitentiary than she was during a three-month military stint in Iraq. Kali is plenty tough—she wants to join the SWAT-like Urgent Response Force—but her vulnerable streak is exposed by her protective relationship with a withdrawn young misfit who is in the "howler ward" for murdering his girlfriend. He has in his possession a comic book drawn by a fellow prisoner that supposedly contains clues to where a cache of drug money was hidden years ago. After the book's artist shows up dead in the prison's shuttered, dungeon-like basement, a "wind chime" hanging from a door, Kali discovers that corruption permeates the place: The people she trusts are as suspect as the "barely human" individuals whose incurable addictions landed them there. Teamed with an undercover federal investigator, she is soon leading a dangerous double life in attempting to peel back layers of myth and reality. As airless and shadowy as the prison, the book goes well beyond conventional prison dramas with its unnerving intensity, graphic violence, discussions of the meaning of evil and "the mystery of human compassion" and lack of heroics. As thoughtful as it is violent, the narrative gets under your skin early and keeps you hooked even when you want to look away. Hollihan's first-person depiction of Kali and her struggles in no-woman's land is flawless. The network of arch villains, dealmakers, goons and do-gooders is drawn in convincing detail.
A darkly compelling, one-of-a-kind prison thriller.