I was looking for something new to read and happened across this book on Amazon. The cover art, entirely appropriate it turns out, seemed a little juvenile to me at the time -- more like something you'd see on a graphic novel than on a sophisticated novel about a female corrections officer working in a Minnesota penitentiary for men.
So I got the free Kindle sample just to be sure it was a worthwhile read, and once I was in, I was hooked.
The New York Times said this was one of the best novels of 2010 and they weren't wrong. It's a very dark book, but not quite in the way you might think. Sure it's set in a prison, and that makes it gritty, but The Four Stages of Cruelty focuses more on the internal politics that not only shape prison life but anyone's life.
How can you tell who's right and wrong when everyone around you seems to have ulterior motives? What is the nature of evil and goodness, and who gets to define that and why? Are people capable of lasting change or will they take advantage of you for being compassionate?
The lines between good and bad are constantly blurred in this novel, and the tension comes from guard Kali Williams' struggle with the byzantine interests at play within the prison and what those interests say about the more nefarious aspects of human nature. The dialogue is spot-on and Hollihan's writing is so convincing, I thought he had to have been a corrections officer or convict in a previous life (he's just talented as hell and did incredible research, it turns out).
I like both literary and crime fiction, but I really love novels that blur the lines between those uber-genres. This is one of those books. In some ways it reminded me of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (Kali Williams as Marlowe), but it also had the kinetic energy of a James Ellroy novel.
It may be dark, even terrifying in its implications, but it's also a fun, exciting read. I can't recommend this book highly enough for fans of Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, George Pelicanos, etc.