RIDE THE LIGHTNING by Robert H. Mitchell


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 Oklahoma City trial lawyer Mitchell builds on a 1973 uprising at a Sooner state prison in his flawed but bleakly effective first novel. Carriage-trade attorney Eric Williams welcomes his appointment to the pardon and parole board of an unnamed Plains state not only as a form of professional recognition but also as a distraction from painful divorce proceedings. As the vaguely liberal young advocate prepares for his initial hearing at McHenry Penitentiary, the overcrowded institution's inmates are laying careful plans for a breakout. In the meantime, with an election looming, Governor David Horton and his prospective challengers maneuver for political advantage on the issue of prison reform's high cost. In his official capacity, Eric encounters a host of crafty convicts, more than a few of whom convince him that they're ready to return to the outside world. Warning that most candidates for release will never adjust to civilized society, however, the board's older hands temper the new boy's penchant for clemency. The cynics are proved right when an inner circle of cons ignites a deadly and destructive riot to provide cover for an escape. In the confusion, Eric and fellow civilians are taken hostage. As television cameras focus on the hellish disturbances in the besieged prison's yard, he's led outside the walls through a long-forgotten tunnel behind the subterranean chamber that houses McHenry's electric chair. Eventually, Eric winds up in chains in a backwoods cabin with a band of homicidal fugitives who mean him no good. Then, freed by an unsentimental lawman who understands the criminal mind, the ex- idealist quits his post and lights out for Colorado's mountains to come to terms with the traumatic experience. While Mitchell delivers a full measure of gritty detail on life behind bars, he stumbles with a surfeit of set-piece preachments (on redemption, recidivism, rehabilitation, etc.) and finally veers off course into didactic melodrama at the close.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-8061-2917-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Univ. of Oklahoma
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1997