Roy Harper

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (2): Tropes, Tribes and Trauma


An opening word or three about the taxonomy of some of the crime fiction genres I am investigating in these features. Noir has an urban and cinematic origin – shadows, stark contrasts, neon lights blinking above shadowy streets and, in people terms, the darker reaches of the human psyche. Authors and film makers have always believed that grim thoughts, words and deeds can also lurk beneath quaint thatched roofs, so we then have Rural Noir, but this must exclude the kind of cruelty carried out by a couple of bad apples amid a generally benign village atmosphere. So, no Cosy Crime, even if it is set in the Southern states, such as Peaches and Scream, one of the Georgia Peach mysteries by Susan Furlong, or any of the Lowcountry novels of Susan M Boyer. Gothic – or the slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothick – will take us into the realms of the fantastical, the grotesque, and give us people, places and events which are just short of parody. So we can have Southern Noir and Southern Gothic, but while they may overlap in places, there are important differences.

I believe there are just two main tropes in Southern Noir and they are closely related psychologically as they both spring from the same historical source, the war between the states 1861 – 1865, and the seemingly endless fallout from those bitter four years. Despite having a common parent the two tropes are, literally, of different colours. The first is set very firmly in the white community, where the novelists find deprivation, a deeply tribal conservativism, and a malicious insularity which has given rise to a whole redneck sub-genre in music, books and film, with its implications of inbreeding, stupidity and a propensity for violence.

Real-life rural poverty in the South was by no means confined to former slaves and their descendants. In historical fact, poor white farmers in the Carolinas, for example, were often caught up in a vicious spiral of borrowing from traders and banks against the outcome of their crop; when time came for payback, they were often simply back to zero, or ALMKTHthrown off the land due to debt. The rich seam of dirt poor and embittered whites who turn to crime in their anger and resentment has been very successfully mined by novelists. Add a touch of fundamentalist Christianity into the pot and we have a truly toxic stew, such as in Wiley Cash’s brilliant A Land More Kind Than Home (2013).

No-one did sadistic and malevolent ‘white trash’ better than Jim Thompson. His embittered, cunning and depraved small town Texas lawman Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me (1952) is one of the scariest characters in crime fiction, although it must be said that Thompson’s bad men – and women – were not geographically confined to the South.

Although not classed as a crime writer, Flannery O’Connor write scorching stories about the kind of moral vacuum into which she felt Southern people were sucked. She said, well aware of the kind of lurid voyeurism with which her home state of Georgia was viewed by some:

“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 20.13.46Her best known novel, Wiseblood (1952) contains enough bizarre, horrifying and eccentric elements to qualify as Gothick. Take a religiously obsessed war veteran, a profane eighteen-year-old zookeeper, prostitutes, a man in a gorilla costume stabbed to death with an umbrella, and a corpse being lovingly looked after by his former landlady, you have what has been described as a work of “low comedy and high seriousness”

There are a couple of rather individual oddities on the Fully Booked website, both slanted towards True Crime, but drenched through with Southern sweat, violence and the peculiar horrors of the US prison system. The apparently autobiographical stories by Roy Harper were apparently smuggled out of the notorious Parchman Farm and into the hands of an eager publisher. Make of that what you will, but the books are compellingly lurid. Merle Temple’s trilogy featuring the rise and fall of Michael Parker, a Georgia law enforcement officer, comprises A Ghostly Shade of Pale, A Rented World and The Redeemed. I only found out after reading and reviewing the books that they too are personal accounts.


The second – and more complex (and controversial) trope in Southern Noir is the tortuous relationship between white people both good and bad, and people of colour. My examination of this will follow soon.

BOOKS BEHIND BARS … The story of Roy Harper (2)

This is the second part
of the extraordinary saga of a real life inmate of America’s toughest correctional facilities, and his struggle to get his story into print. You can read Part One here. Henry Roi is the PR Manager for Crime Wave Press, and here he tells of just what it took to get Roy Harper’s work from inside a jail cell onto bookshelves and e-readers.

The Tribulations Of An Author Convict

Tool’s Law was written in a hostile environment, a Mississippi Supermax, where the strongest of minds deteriorated from incessant chaos, government oppression, and inhumane treatment condoned by local culture.

Roy Harper has been many things in his life. A thief, bank robber, car-jacker, kidnapper, an armed and dangerous fugitive. He doesn’t brag about these things, though he is unapologetic as well. He accomplished his proudest endeavors as a convict, spending over a decade advocating prisoner rights and was instrumental in the civil suits that ultimately closed down Unit 32 Supermax, starting a ripple-effect that changed correctional philosophy around the country.

After 40 years of an intense criminal life, Roy can now add “Published Author” to his timeline. In 2004 Roy decided to write a book. A novel that would, hopefully, sell enough copies to pay for a pardon. Money was the original motivator for penning Tool’s Law, though as the process developed, it became an outlet, an escape from a harsh reality. As the characters took on a life of their own the project became far more than just a way to make money; the project became a great source of PRIDE, a real self-motivator, and the first legit hard work Roy had ever embarked on without grinding his teeth in reluctance. Hard work – years of it – in a hard environment. How could he possibly look forward to that? Because every completed chapter elevated his sense of accomplishment.

0306162315Roy’s workspace was adequate for writing. But the inadequacies far surmounted any conveniences: No computers, word processors or typewriters were available. Paper was hard to get, and because of the high-security, regular ink pens were banned. Every page, 1,162 in total, was handwritten multiple times to render a final clean draft with a “flex-pen”, a plastic ink cartridge with a soft, flexible rubber shroud. These sub-par ink dispensers are immensely taxing on the hand.

Outside of his cell was an endless dissonance. Unit 32 was filled with the worst-behaved prisoners in the state. Mentally ill or terribly disruptive, the psychotic, violent and juvenile actions pervaded the buildings without interruption, exacerbated by policies and staff that offered no incentives for good behavior – no T.V., radio, fans, or even shoes. They acted like animals because they were treated as such.

 For High Risk inmates like Roy, shakedowns were a weekly treat, as were movement to different cells. Officers routinely trashed property, out of spite or under orders, and did not care about the perceived value of a prisoner’s property. Family photos, artwork, cherished letters from loved ones, legal work, poems, and manuscripts like Roy’s were commonly trashed or taken during these movements and shakedowns.

It took several days to get mentally adjusted to a new cell, with new neighbors, noises, smells, critters, floods, fires, and fears of who must be watched to avoid being scalded, stabbed, or assaulted with excrement. After acclimating to a new cell, Roy would work on Tool’s law during lulls in the chaos.

In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union took interest in several lawsuits filed about inhumane treatment in Unit 32. Roy worked closely with the Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, Miss Margaret Winter, who used a 5th Circuit ruling filed by Roy in previous years to supplement the class-action that eventually closed down Unit 32. A federal judge issued a court decree ordering the Mississippi Department Of Corrections to provide Long-Term Segregation inmates, including High-Risk, incentive programs that allowed well-behaved prisoners a chance to earn more privileges and freedom of movement.

In 2008, Deputy Commissioner E.L. Sparkman created the High-Risk Incentive Program. Roy was the poster-man Mr. Sparkman used to promote the program, “selling” it to other states and even the federal system. Mr. Sparkman’s change of correctional philosophy – from take everything and lock ‘em down to providing them incentives for good behavior – was a national success, and the Supermax facilities around the country began closing as other states took note.

Out of appreciation for Roy’s help and good behavior during the development of the High-Risk Incentive Programs, Mr. Sparkman helped Roy with Tool’s Law, appointing a deputy warden to have the manuscript scanned and burned onto DVDs.

 No further progress was made on Tool’s Law until 2012, when RAW T.V. producer Jenny Evans contacted Roy to interview him for a feature in National Geographic’s Breakout! series. RAW T.V. wanted to do a documentary about Roy’s May, 2000, escape from Unit 32 Supermax. Miss Evans could not pay Roy for the story (that is illegal), but offered to help with Tool’s Law. She had the brilliant idea of recruiting Facebook friends to help type it, and over the next six months the entire manuscript was typed by more than a dozen awesome, caring people Roy had never met and would never know.

Three more years went by before any more progress was made. The handwritten pages were typed, but they needed to be edited, proofread, and submitted to publishers. The Incentive Program had more privileges, but Internet access was off-limits. And Roy had no help on the outside…but he had help on the inside.

 Roy’s friend and fellow outlaw, Chris, is a self-published author who had access to the Internet via a Galaxy Android smartphone (which, after possessing for several years, was confiscated from Chris after a gangbanger snitched on him). Chris had no experience with writing apps, but learned quickly, working closely with Roy to edit and proof – read Tool’s Law. Roy drew his own cover art, which Chris took pictures of and used his image editing apps to create the book covers. Together they published Tool’s Law in a four-book series on, a self-publishing service.

 A couple of months later, Roy and Chris had sold only a few books. After constant research about creating online platforms, they learned how limited they were, lacking money for data, and the online time needed to successfully grow an Internet presence as authors. They changed tactics, using what they could do very effectively: submitting queries.

After studying numerous examples of queries in books about writing, they started a query campaign that lasted over a month, submitting to publishing houses, big and small, around the world. During this period there was a constant fear of the phone being discovered. They were, after all, escape risks housed in maximum security and the Incentive Program did not lessen the frequency of shakedowns. The manuscripts, queries, sample chapters – every file created for submitting to publishers and agents – was at stake.

Success! When Roy read the first email from Crime Wave Press the relief on his face and in his body language was profound. All the years of hard work and stress to get Tool’s Law to this point was vindicated. It wasn’t all for nothing, as he had feared often. Crime Wave Press was highly interested, having read and loved the first two books. Roy knew they’d like books three and four as well. He was right.

The contract was drafted, negotiated, and signed. The final product, a leaner and meaner version of Tool’s Law, edited by Tom Vater, will be released in two volumes this Spring/Summer, 2016, as Tool’s Law Book I: SHANK and Tool’s Law Book II: HEIST.

Roy is currently working on another novel, inspired and enjoying the feeling of having a real purpose in life: entertaining people with his unique crime fiction stories.
No-one who has ever tried to write a novel
– and get it published – will claim the process is easy, or without heartbreak or moments of despair, but Roy Harper’s struggle is something else altogether. In the final part of this stranger-than-fiction story there will be more from Harper himself, and also a transcript of his interview with Henry Roi (pictured below)


Shank is available on Amazon

BOOKS BEHIND BARS … The story of Roy Harper (part 1)

roy-headerThere have been several examples of literature being written by imprisoned authors. Described as the first modern novel, Don Quixote, was conceived while Miguel de Cervantes was in jail for debt, although it was finished and published after the author was freed. Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis was a poignant letter to his fickle lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and was composed while the author was serving his sentence for indecency. The powerful Ballad of Reading Gaol was, however, written after Wilde’s release.

The French novelist
, playwright and poet, Jean Genet was what my late sainted father would have called “a thoroughly bad lot”. As a young adult, he seems to have spent more time in prison than out of it, and his provocative homosexuality scandalised France at a time when such activities were meant to be carried out behind closed doors. His 1944 novel Our Lady of The Flowers was written while Genet was yet again under lock and key, but such was its quality that the author attracted powerful admirers such as Sartre, Cocteau and Picasso. Genet was released and, while he never became the Gallic version of a National Treasure, he never went back to prison.

Closer to home, the seventeenth century political and religious rebel, John Bunyan, completed much of his epic Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress while festering in  Bedford prison for his Non-Conformist views and antipathy towards The Church of England.

tools-lawRoy Harper would not claim literary kinship with Cervantes, Wilde and Genet, yet he shares the unique kinship of living a life behind bars. He also writes, and after an exercise in smuggling manuscripts out of prison that merits a novel all by itself, his first book – Shank (Tool’s Law 1) – was published in May 2016. Let Henry Roi, of Crimewave Press, take up the story.

Roy Harper has been isolated for the safety of society. Bank robberies, high speed chases and gun battles with law enforcement are crimes most teenagers watch on television, but for Roy it was simply a way of life. He began stealing cars, running from cops in high speed chases, at fourteen; robbing banks and engaging police in deadly gun battles – in multiple states – at seventeen. “Maximum Security” are just words to him, no matter what state sentenced him to prison, or how many times, he escaped from them all. Even Parchman Farm’s notorious Supermax, Unit 32. His insanely daring escapes were highly publicized by national media, causing a public outcry that still echoes today.

 The extreme transgressions against the United States Government – its law enforcement, correctional institutions and citizens in numerous states – culminated into four life sentences… with a few more decades added on for good measure. The Habitual Offender Act (popularly known as The Three Strikes Law) made the life sentences mandatory, and signaled the end of any chance of Roy being paroled as a free man.

1128152005a3Roy Harper (right) never murdered anyone, and the worst that ever befell those he encountered while on the run was to be shocked, and then accosted and harassed by reporters looking to sell the news as entertainment. Raised in Tempe, Arizona, Roy enjoyed exploring the desert and playing at gun fighting, and was fascinated by outlaw cowboys, the most infamous being Public Enemy No.1, John Dillinger.

 Roy’s elementary school principal believed in, and was heavy handed in, corporal punishment. Roy didn’t share that belief. So, he was expelled when he was in the fourth grade. Soon after, he discovered that gun fighting was no longer “playing”.

By the time his teenage years were turning a boy into a man, Roy Harper’s misdeeds had ranged from stealing toucans from the Phoenix Zoo at eight years old,  stealing cars by the time he was ten, escaping juvenile detention facilities at twelve, and sneaking out of his parents house at night to steal, run from the police, and lurk in the dark shadows fearful of the Boogeyman his mother warned him about. It was a moment of self realisation when it dawned on Harper that he probably WAS The Boogeyman.

You can get hold of a copy of Shank by following the link.

Learn more from the website of Crimewave Press

In part 2 of Books Behind Bars there will be an interview with Roy Harper,
a closer look at Shank, and an update on Harper’s current status.

Below is the notorious Parchman Farm,
and a blues written and played by Bukka White.




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