The Inside Man by James Phelps

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

Violent, barbaric but sometimes boring…Sydney’s Long Bay Gaol is no place for the faint-hearted. But it is where we find the main protagonist of James Phelps’ story, 19-year-old ex-soldier Riley Jax. He has been convicted of a murder he has no memory of and is struggling to survive in the concrete jungle of a jail.

This is a story that relies heavily on the action carrying the reader across the chasm of shallow character development. The characters are not just shallow, but progressively more depraved on any moral scale you can image. With very few exceptions, the cast of bikies, druggies, murderers and terrorists carry out extremely violent acts, seemingly without blinking. Then there’s the bent prison guards who turn a blind eye or worse to this mayhem. It’s a depressingly long list of brutes.

Two contenders for worst of the lot are the religious fundamentalist hell bent on bombing churches around the world and the mysterious Professor. This strange character has a split personality with a Hannibal Lecter type side, which scares everyone in Goulburn’s Super Max prison. His nebulous relationship to the terrorists left me unclear as to his exact role.

However, the characters are often mere pencil-sketches of real people. Case in point, Nikki the love interest of our main man Riley. Details such as her age, background, personality, job, family and how she and Riley met are missing. Also absent is Nikki’s presence in the story after half-way, with little explanation given.

On a positive note, Phelps writes convincingly about prison life. His depiction of the betting accounts being used nefariously was intriguing. Perhaps surprisingly, he goes into remarkable detail about making a bomb with household items that are available to prisoners. I failed High School Chemistry, but it seemed possible to this layman. Again, the exacting preparations that suicide bombers go through sounded credible. The extensive range and scope of security agencies’ use of technology to track miscreants was well done as well.

He was also good at building up the tension at various junctures of the plot. When Jax’s girlfriend Nikki is forced to smuggle contraband into jail, we can feel her stress about such a high-risk, degrading endeavour. Then there was Jax’s encounter with the volatile Professor as his mood fluctuated dangerously.

I thought the Riley Jax character became harder to take seriously the more the story rolled on. At first, there’s some doubt over his conviction for a murder he can’t remember and we can sympathise with his plight as a newbie in a tough jail. Backed into a corner, he comes out fighting but his descent into violent action and the apparent disregard of the authorities for these brutal acts becomes more and more unrealistic. Then there’s the minor details: like his IQ of over 200, having a photographic memory and recovering from brain surgery in two weeks.  It would have been a more credible story if some of these details were tweaked.

For a local comparison, there’s the Trent Dalton character Slim in Boy Swallows Universe. Locked in solitary confinement in Brisbane’s notorious Boggo Road Gaol, Slim survives using his remarkable imagination. After prison, he seems to be able to impart valuable life lessons to others.

Perhaps the gold standard of prison survival stories is Tim Robbins’s character in The Shawshank Redemption, which showed the violent side to jail but the growth of people under duress as well. However, there’s little moral growth in The Inside Man and you wouldn’t want your kids near Jax, assuming he’s released one day.

In some superficial ways, Jax is a Jack Reacher wannabe; ex-military, lone-wolf type with physical and mental skills who deals with baddies ruthlessly. One difference is that Reacher is often righting wrongs against powerless people that otherwise would be overlooked. Also, Reacher acts independently and he is overall a more mature, rounded character.

Thinking of future adventures in Reacher territory perhaps, Phelps steers the final stages of this story to an assassination attempt on the US President. To facilitate this development, Phelps side-lines the Australian spy, who’s been pulling the strings controlling Jax, in favour of his American colleague. The little matter of a murder conviction (or two?) remains to be cleared away.

While it did keep me engaged, I had trouble with some of the extreme violence so would give the book a qualified recommendation. Perhaps I should add that this is not bed-time reading for the frail-of-heart.

James Phelps is a senior reporter with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers. He has written several true crime titles about Australian jails including Australia’s Hardest Prison: Long Bay Gaol and Australia’s Most Murderous Prison: Goulburn Jail. He has also done biographies of racing driver Dick Johnson as well as Rugby League star Jonathan Thurston. He also did Australia’s Code Breakers, a non-fiction work set in WW2.

The Inside Man

(2021)

by James Phelps

Harper Collins

ISBN: 9781460758649

384pp; $26.25

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