“I just can’t see Jim Singley turning into the kind of guy that would harbor a grudge, no matter how long they kept him locked up…Why, I bet you, sore as he was at Herb Fleming, by next morning he’d have cooled off and made it up if—if—”
“If he hadn’t already killed Herb.”
No one expected Jim Singley to show his face in town again after spending six years in prison for killing his business partner. After all, so many of those affected by the tragedy still live there. Some of them have reason to be afraid of having the whole thing stirred up again. Whatever Jim’s reason for returning, at least one of his old friends is determined to keep him from sticking around—by any means necessary.
A novel of small-town secrets, Home Is the Prisoner is both more conventional and less psychologically acute than the other Potts novels I’ve read. Still, “released convict returns to hometown in search of answers and revenge” is a classic plot for a reason: it always works. Unusually, the story is never told from Jim’s viewpoint, but from the perspectives of various townspeople who hate, fear, pity and love him. This preserves the mystery of Jim’s guilt or innocence, as well as his motive for coming home. However, it also means that none of these individuals are explored very deeply, which is a shame given the author’s talent for characterization.
The most well-realized character is Cleo Fleming, the victim’s daughter. As a child, she testified in Jim Singley’s defense, resulting in a lesser sentence of manslaughter. Six years later, she’s an adult with an unfulfilling job, a dependable but dull boyfriend, and a mother who hasn’t been the same since the killing. Jim’s arrival in town makes her wonder if there was any truth to the rumors that he and her mother Audrey were closer than they should have been. Was it her husband’s death that left Audrey so traumatized, or the loss of her lover? And why is Audrey’s wealthy second husband Elroy so angry about Jim’s return? Cleo is beginning to see her mother in a new light.
She doesn’t need me.
It was such a brand-new notion. Hard to grasp, after all these years of thinking of Mother as her darling little incompetent, her child-mother who didn’t know how to take care of herself. But, standing there in the middle of the living room, Cleo did grasp it; with an almost parental, rueful pride, she relinquished her role of self-appointed caretaker and accepted the fact of Mother’s independence. She even felt a pang of amusement at the mental image of herself and Elroy as a composite, officious mother hen, clucking over a chick who neither wanted nor needed their supervision.
Viewing her family and neighbors through adult eyes, Cleo must re-evaluate everything she thought she knew about her childhood if she is to learn the real truth behind her father’s death. All the while, she is hiding a secret of her own.
Jim’s ex-wife Velma is horrified by his reappearance in her life. Not only did Velma divorce Jim after his conviction, she has kept their son Wayne away from him and even changed both of their names. Not that this created any distance from the scandal; she “had made such a point of eradicating Singley from her name that it was now indelibly inscribed there.”
The mantle of martyrdom sits easily on Velma’s shoulders. In some ways, Jim going to prison was the best thing that could have happened to her. Now he’s back, upsetting all her plans for Wayne. The treatment of Velma is a missed opportunity. She has the potential to be a complicated and disturbing figure, but Potts never goes much below the surface.
Finally, there’s Judge McVey, who defended Jim in court and was elected judge immediately after losing the case. Jim claims not to blame his old buddy for the conviction, but maybe he should.
One of these old friends knows how Herb Fleming met his death on that fateful night. It’s just hard to care what happens to Jim, who remains frustratingly unknowable throughout, a cookie-cutter “nice guy.” Fortunately, the secrets of the townspeople are intriguing enough to keep the narrative going, even if it isn’t clear why they’re all so obsessed with the unremarkable Jim. Home Is the Prisoner is an entertaining but unchallenging work from an author who is capable of more.
Home Is the Prisoner is out of print, but used copies are widely available, including a 1980s reprint.