Les Edgerton: Accuracy In Crime Novels

Les Edgerton served a little over 2 years in Pendleton in the sixties on a 2-5 burglary charge (plea-bargained down from 82 counts of second-degree burglary, a count of armed robbery, a count of strong-armed robbery, and a count of possession with intent to sell). When he was in the joint, then-President Johnson declared Pendleton to be “the single worst prison in the U.S.” Les agrees with that assessment…

Since then, Les has earned a B.A. (With Honors of Distinction) from Indiana University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He has published 18 books, taught creative writing at various universities, including the UCLA Writer’s Program, St. Francis University, and served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toledo and at Trine University. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), PEN/Faulkner Award, Jesse Jones Book Award, Violet Crown Book Award (was awarded a Special Citation for his novel The Death of Tarpons), and others. A screenplay of his was a semifinalist in the Nichol’s Foundation Awards. The NY Times review of his story collection, Monday’s Meal, compared him favorably to Raymond Carver.

Currently, he resides in Ft. Wayne, IN with his wife Mary and their son Mike. Les has two daughters-Britney and Sienna-from a previous marriage. He teaches online classes for Writer’s Digest and provides novel coaching services for writers.

Les says, “When President Johnson came on TV to announce the results of his administration’s study that “Pendleton was the single-worst prison,” I was watching over in J Block and everyone stood up and began cheering and waving aloft a single digit. It was like our football team had just been named Number One. Quite a stirring experience. We knew then how Notre Dame fans felt…

(Depicting the criminal’s mind and behavior accurately)

I’d like to address a subject that’s bothered me for many years. I’m speaking of the way authors have routinely depicted the average criminal’s mind and behavior, which, in the main, have been largely inaccurate.

First, to establish my “bona fides” I am both a writer and an ex-con, having served about two years of a two-to-five sentence in the Indiana state prison at Pendleton, Indiana (for second-degree burglary) back in the sixties. I was originally charged with 82 burglaries, one count of armed robbery, one count of strong-arm robbery, and one count of possession with intent to deal. All of the charges were reduced to a single count of second-degree burglary via a plea bargain. I actually committed far more felonies-for instance, I did over 400 burglaries-but 82 was all my rap-partners could remember (or were in on-many I did solo) to roll over on me on-and so that’s the number I was charged with. The statue of limitations has run out on them now, so I can “fess up.”

One of the basic elements of good writing, in my opinion, is veracity. Not only should the author remain true to his personal version of truth, but his reportage should also be accurate. And, in the case of the criminal mindset and normal behavior, I see instance after instance in short stories, novels and movies where an inaccurate portrayal is the rule and not the exception.

Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:

1. Inmates in prison hate child molesters.
Mostly hooey. It seems to be common wisdom these days that people on the bricks (“straights”) believe that inmates in prison hate child molesters and can’t wait to kill them. I disagree… to a point. Back in my time in prison (mid-sixties in a state joint, which is vastly different than a federal prison), nobody much cared about what you were in for. Actually, there weren’t many child molesters back then-child molestations, while they’ve always been around are infinitely more common these days than back then-but as long as they minded their business no one really bothered them or cared what they’d done. I can only remember knowing of one inmate who was a convicted child molester and nobody bothered him or much cared what he was in for. To be honest, a large number of people incarcerated have drinking or drug problems and when they’re on the sauce or high, pretty routinely abuse their own kids.

2. Inmates hate convicted cops.
Again, hooey. The few cops that were in the joint with me had more friends than anyone else, on average. The thing is, cops and outlaws interact with each other all the time on the bricks-at least the professional criminals do-and most of us like and even respect each other. There’s a very fine line between being a cop and a criminal, in my opinion. We’re both adrenaline junkies and is one of the chief reasons we become what we are in these two “career fields.” When I was “in the life” I used to hang out almost every night at a slop shop in downtown South Bend, before I went to “work,” and half the people there were off-duty cops and half were outlaws. We all got along well and if one of those guys got sent up, we were still friends.

3. Inmates claim to be innocent.
This is probably the biggest myth of all. Nobody claims to be innocent in the joint-even those few who are. If you were innocent and said so to other inmates, they would take that as a sign of weakness and you’d be in trouble. Where that comes from is when a reporter or researcher interviews an inmate, very often they’ll sing him a sad tale of woe about being bumrapped. The reason is, no matter how guilty the person is, once you’re inside, all hope has vanished. To be interviewed, especially by a sympathetic listener, the hope rises that enough bleeding hearts will read the article or see the show and be moved to do something to get the guy liberated. That it doesn’t happen doesn’t destroy the hope-they know it’s a long shot anything like that will happen, but it’s a glimmer of a hope and so they bring their acting chops to the table-probably even claim to have one of those b.s. “jailhouse conversions” and hope somehow their “story” (and that’s usually what it is-a story-will affect the right people’s hearts and a miracle will happen. I only knew one person when I was in who was truly innocent and there’s no way he would have claimed that to other inmates unless he really trusted they wouldn’t tell anyone else. That’d be suicide. In fact, when those who appear in documentaries and TV shows claim their innocence, the instant they’re back in the cellhouse they make sure to let everyone know they were just pulling a shuck.

Another thing they don’t publicize as it would destroy the common misconception. Of all those people who get freed from prison after an investigation or new trial, probably 90-some percent aren’t freed because they were found innocent. They’re freed because of a legal technicality. You can look that up.

For points #1 and #2, what I suspect has happened to lead to the hatred for child molesters and cops inside the walls is what has happened in just about all the instances of misconceptions about convicts. I think what’s happened is that movies romanticized this (inmates hating and killing child molesters) and inmates bought into this image of themselves for a variety of reasons–a typical reason being that people in prison are just plain looking for any kind of excuse to shank someone and this is as good a reason as any and even kind of makes the guy shanking a child molester look like a good or moral guy.

This is exactly what happened with Mario Puzo and his book and subsequent movie “The Godfather.” Puzo admitted he knew nothing at all about the Mafia and made up nearly everything about them that’s in his book. This guy was living in a suburb in Connecticut-sitting in his garage typing on a door laid out over two sawhorses-and had never even seen a mafiosa up close. What he was familiar with were insurance executives and stock brokers. Just about everything in the book was fabricated out of whole cloth.

The truth being, most Mafioso aren’t all that bright and are basically street thugs with fairly low I.Q.’s in general, but the movie glamorized and romanticized them with horse’s heads and “sleeping with the fishes” and “hitting the mattresses” and all the other stuff Puzo made up, so they just adopted the whole thing because it made them look much cooler than they actually were and are. Life imitated art. There’s just an awful lot of that going on in the public’s general
perception of inmates and prisons.

The same thing happened with the cops being in danger in the joint myth. Some individual somewhere told a reporter that and the naive reporter (there’s a lot of those folks!) reported it as gospel and just like the child molester myth, that just gave cons an excuse to shank someone and feel “moral.” Now, of course, thanks to television and the movies, convicted cops are in danger.

The problem is, the vast majority of inmates in state prisons are operating with an average fourth-grade education and so aren’t likely to write screenplays or books (most can barely read), so the public only knows what a reporter or researcher tells them and inmates are almost never straight with them for all the above reasons and more. Ex-cons from federal joints are better-educated and sometimes do write articles and books, but the problem is federal joints are as different from state joints as a rowboat is from the Queen Mary. The next time I do a crime I’m going to do something that qualifies for a federal jolt first and then if I’m busted for something I’d do state time for, I’ll cop a plea on the federal beef and end up going there first, which means I’ll probably die in a federal prison before I do the state bit. Federal time is just a wee bit easier to do…

If you’ll have me back, Lee, I’ll tell the story of the period Charles Manson and his cellmate in Corcoran, Roger Smith (who bills himself as the “Most-Stabbed Inmate in History”-which he probably is-he’s been shanked over 300 times) kept calling me for a month to chat and with Roger begging me to write his autobiography and what happened then.

Thanks for having me!

Blue skies,

P.S. Of the thousands of novels and movies I’ve experienced, the only time I’ve seen the criminal mind portrayed accurately (imo) was in the scene in Pulp Fiction where the guy shoots his best friend in the back seat of the car by accident. His reaction is the only honest depiction of the criminal mind I’ve yet seen.


Les Edgerton’s Hooked –The first and only fiction-writing book that focuses exclusively on beginnings–no other book on the market addresses story beginnings in a comprehensive manner.

Visit Les here.


One of my favorite Les Egerton quotes:

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“I’ve got an MFA and I’ve also got a barbering certificate from Pendleton where I was in the joint, and of the two the barbering certificate’s made me a lot more money. ~ Les Edgerton”

*Note to writers – If you EVER have the opportunity to hear Les speak do yourself a favor and drop what you’re doing and go there as fast as your feet can take you. He’s an incredible (and hilarious) speaker and teacher. He’s also a great guy and I’m proud to call him my friend.