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Writing a detective novel while in prison can be rehabilitative
Photo by Sofia Sforza on Unsplash

It doesn’t happen a whole lot, this thing I want to share. It’s rarer than falling in love and as elusive as parole. When you come across it, you’re not looking for it. It just shows up like an unannounced letter.

I don’t know quite what to call it. The rehabilitative benefit of writing doesn’t do it justice.

The first time it happened to me I was writing the penultimate chapter of a detective novel called, “Goodbye Natalie.” The story is about a Kansas farm girl, Fallon Dawn Hunter, who migrates to Los Angeles and lands a temporary job answering phones at a one-man detective agency in Hollywood. 

When her boss turns up dead, she starts wondering if she should have given up her boring but secure farm life to chase her dreams in Los Angeles. But then, a has-been silent screen legend wanders into the office and mistakes Fallon for a detective. She reluctantly takes the job of finding Vivian Valentine’s lost son.

“Goodbye Natalie” was the second book I had written. The first, “Icicle Bill,” achieved moderate success. The guys on the prison yard liked it, and it ran on the internet and as an episodic drama series in a prison yard paper. I received a few publishing offers. 

When I wrote it, I was bedridden. I had fallen 60 feet during a failed prison escape attempt, so writing had been just about the only thing I could do.

While “Icicle Bill” took three years to complete, “Goodbye Natalie” seemed to flow easily. The noir atmosphere of a ramshackle Hollywood walk-up, the dingy B-girl bars of Koreatown, a ruthless killer on the loose and the naivete of a young midwestern protagonist mirrored my past. I had lived “Goodbye Natalie” before.

I was bringing Fallon’s adventure to a climax in the penultimate chapter when it happened — I felt an electric current in the room. 

In the scene I was writing, villain Jimmy Fingers crept into the hospital room of Vivian Valentine. The words suddenly began to arrive from a place outside of me. As I wrote, everything was foreign. Jimmy had been lurking as a menace the entire book, following Fallon Hunter. But as Jimmy hovered over Vivian’s bed, we learned for the first time that they were in cahoots — a complete surprise to the reader and to the writer. It made the story infinitely more interesting.

This was the second time I was startled while writing. The first was during a writing assignment for a rehabilitation class. I was recalling episodes from my youth — scenes as deeply embedded as a prison tattoo, and a hundred times more painful. 

Wading into those pools of remembrance, I was transported to a frigid room in my childhood, where I cowered under the covers as I listened to my mother being beaten mercilessly.

A chill of fear overcame me, as if I’d wandered out too far on a winter lake and broken through the still-fragile ice.

I didn’t have the courage at the time to protect my helpless mother. I had allowed an abusive stepfather to deliver terror on the sole person who deserved heroism.

I had understood then, for the first time, that my original trauma, the main contributing factor to my distorted belief system and criminal thinking, was cloaked in an invisible tapestry of shame. 

The rehabilitative benefit of writing was revealed to me.

Both these examples were rare moments of literary clarity that we can’t manufacture, learn or force. We just have to wait and write — and write and wait. And hope it visits again.

Note from David Babb: I was inspired to write this after reading an essay by Susan Rosenbeg in PEN America’s book, “The Sentences That Create Us.” In one striking passage, she invokes the act of writing behind bars:

“Not thinking about that dirty tiny crack where the floor and wall meet. Not hearing the flushing toilets, gates clanging, people shouting, bells ringing. Focused only on the great drama going on inside her mind. This quiet woman in a blue jumpsuit, sitting in a solitary cell, has not moved for hours. She is writing a short story.” 

When I read this, I felt chills. The realness, the oneness of prison writers. We’re all connected, even if we don’t know it. We find freedom in the pages, written and while we write. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

David “Razor” Babb is the founding editor-in-chief of The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He is also a 2008-2009 winner of the PEN Prison Writing Award in the essay category and the author of numerous books including “Icicle Bill,” “Goodbye Natalie” and “Last Lockdown.”