True to it’s title, The Four Stages of Cruelty is not a book for the faint of heart. Kali Williams is a Corrections Officer at the Ditmarsh Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in Minnesota. Even though Kali works in the prison, as a female CO, she provides the perspective of an outsider looking in. When Kali is given the mission of bringing inmate, Josh Riff, to his father’s funeral, she is furious. She feels that she is being setup or somehow punished. Josh, who was convicted of manslaughter for killing his girlfriend, is only nineteen and while Kali abhors him for what he has done, she can’t help but feel sympathetic towards him after his father’s funeral.
Before they head back into the prison, Josh shows Kali a comic that his friend Crowley asked him to smuggle out of the prison for safekeeping. Confused and not one to do favors for inmates, Kali gives it back to him. After seeing the comic, Kali begins to sees things in the prison that she never noticed before.
A few days after Josh’s trip, Crowley is involved in a big brawl on the prison grounds and is sent to a disciplinary unit, from which he disappears. Using clues from the comic, Kali finds Crowley’s body in an abandoned part of the prison three days later. Kali expects to be rewarded for her investigative work, but instead finds herself in the middle of a hornet’s nest.
Hollihan’s novel is the best cross of literary and adrenaline fiction. While at it’s heart, the novel is about the relationships between inmates and COs, it often feels like reading a thriller. Hollihan’s writing is of the sort that will make you want to send your loved ones into exile until you reach the 304th page. He has a way of ending a chapter with a single sentence that makes it impossible not to read on.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the main characters, despite one’s better judgment and the secondary characters are a sea of the best cons and thugs mixed with a handful of potential good guys. Part of what makes this novel so good, is that you can never tell who to trust, what character is on what side or what character is trading favors with another. Kali’s labyrinthine journey through the hidden dark places in Ditmarsh is riveting. But, you have to wait until that last page for a final resolution.