Book review: Hard Sentences – Crime fiction inspired by Alcatraz.


Alcatraz-a place synonymous with hopelessness and despair. The infamous prison island is the catalyst for a series of crime stories that sit trapped inside this anthology from Broken River Books, edited by David James Keaton and Joe Clifford.

I’ve been looking forward to this anthology since I first heard about it and to a large extent, I was very, very happy with what I read. Your mileage always varies with anthologies and I chose to digest this one slowly, though my new job has also had a big impact on my reading time of late.

The book’s intro is typical Keaton-bonkers but very funny (slam-dunking severed heads, anyone?), and some of the stories selected definitely have a sort of Keaton vibe to them in that they aren’t straight forward crime tales of escape, which is probably what you’d expect from an anthology such as this. There are stories that run the gauntlet of people trying to leave the island, but this collection should be commended for its originality and most of the authors do a great job in harnessing the grim hopelessness of the rock. Rather than give a run down of every single tale, I’ll simply highlight a few that really stood out for me. The opening story by Glenn Gray is terrific. It tells of a botched escape by a man born with a brittle bone disease. Lots of medical talk about bones breaking all add to the authenticity of the narrative and this is a story sure to make you wince a little. This darkly humorous entry is a great way to get things started. It turned out to be my favourite story, so much so I read it twice! Nick Mamatas’ story had me scratching my head a little. I really didn’t have a Scooby Doo what was going on at first, it’s kind of weird and trippy, something about seeing things through the eyes of prisoners? Very odd but pretty cool, too. Clean Shot by Jedidiah Ayers is a real highlight. It’s the story of a prison guard that doesn’t intend on making the same mistake twice and Michael Paul Gonzalez spins a good yarn with Last Man Out (or, Eat Shit and Die). This is another botched escape attempt tale that I really enjoyed. It tells of a man trapped between the walls at Alcatraz. His only companion is a Rat. Really good story, funny and with a great ending too.

Other highlights include The Ghosts of 14D by Joshua Chaplinsky, which is a pretty unsettling tale about life in the hole. Rob Hart’s The Gas Chamber, a story that takes place in the mess hall is also very cool, as is Max Booth III’s entry about Robert Stroud-the Birdman of Alcatraz in a story that has some trademark Boothisms, but it’s actually quite sad to read as well. Both these stories added a little something different to what came before and are well worth another read. The Music Box by Leah Rhyme and in particular, Live at Alcatraz by Nick Kolakowski was also excellent. I loved the Kolakowski tale a great deal. A band travels to the rock led by the “Man in Black” to play a gig. A full-scale riot breaks out and the guitarist goes missing. Can the man in black get him back? Live at Alcatraz is excellent, the man in black is great and bears all the characteristics of the late Johnny Cash. This tale is a terrific homage to the legend and in particular his live album, At Folsom Prison.

Hard Sentences is a really good anthology. The stories are all short, sharp and mostly on point. The writers’ that I expected to deliver strong stories did and a few others I was unfamiliar with also chipped in with commendable tales. One or two didn’t quite work for me, but that’s purely down to taste rather than a reflection of the books overall quality which I think is very high.

If you like themed crime anthologies with great variety then Hard Sentences is a book that should be on your radar. Broken River Books continue to publish original and exciting fiction. Their releases are varied and the quality never lacking. If you are unfamiliar with them then you’re seriously missing out. Fix that…now.

4/5 life sentences from the Grim Reader.

Pick up a copy from here.

One Comment Add yours

  1. LizScanlon says:

    Slam dunking severed heads? Ha, that sentence sells the book!
    It does actually sound interesting… I may have to check this out!


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