The Four Stages of Cruelty (Hardcover)

By Keith Hollihan

Thomas Dunne Books, 9780312592479, 304pp.

Publication Date: December 7, 2010

Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (12/7/2010)

List Price: 25.99*
* Individual store prices may vary.


Ditmarsh Penitentiary holds many secrets within its walls. A maximum-security prison, it contains every breed of hatred, self-destruction, greed, and regret. Its inmates aren't the only ones who grapple with these emotions. Under constant threat yet given absolute authority, the guards routinely cross the divide between law enforcement and criminality.

Corrections Officer Kali Williams takes pains to avoid the complicated traps of inmates and guards alike. Then a young inmate named Joshua comes to her for help. He claims that another prisoner has drawn an elaborate comic book, which holds a guide to the illicit underworld of Ditmarsh. The struggle to obtain the information encoded in its pages has been the cause of ever-increasing violence throughout the prison.

At first Kali can't take Joshua seriously. But soon afterward, the artist-inmate disappears completely. As she retraces his steps, she enters a labyrinthine world inside the prison with unexpected connections to the outside world. Along the way, she uncovers the most bewildering secret of all – the mystery of human compassion, the twisted forms it can take, and the violence and redemption it makes possible.  

About the Author

KEITH HOLLIHAN worked as a business analyst and ghostwriter before publishing his first novel. Born in Canada, he has traveled widely and lived in Japan and the Czech Republic. He now lives with his wife and sons in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Praise For The Four Stages of Cruelty


“Through the eyes of a young, vulnerable, tough female guard, Hollihan presents prison life in all its daily bleakness and occasional violence and reveals the intricate social strata, black-market dealings, alliances and hostilities between the prisoners and guards in Ditmarsh Prison. In precise and visceral language, he gathers up the various, fascinating threads of his plot and weaves them into a stunning, unforgettable story.”

--Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man

"This is one intense book--brutally sad and heartbreakingly brutal, and filled with precise, vivid detail that brings the world of Ditmarsh Penitentiary vividly to life. I found it impossible to put down, not only because the plot is kinetic but because of Hollihan's deep understanding of moral and emotional complexities." --Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply "First comes the awareness that you’re home alone. Next the butterflies kick in. Soon you’re skipping ahead to the bottom of the page before you get the nerve to back up and face what happened, the reading equivalent of peeking through your fingers. But the thrills in this novel, Keith Hollihan’s first, aren’t cheap."--The New York Times "Mr. Hollihan's superb accomplishment is to get us to care for the prisoners—most of them murderers—as they harass, cajole and barter their way into power. The book's title foretells its inevitable drift, yet, like Kali, we're made vulnerable by compassion. Then, having softened us up, Mr. Hollihan sets off an explosive ending that's indelible and genuinely shocking."--The Wall Street Journal "[An] astonishing debut....  As airless and shadowy as the prison, the book goes well beyond conventional prison dramas with its unnerving intensity, graphic violence, discussions of the meaning of evil and "the mystery of human compassion" and lack of heroics. ... The narrative gets under your skin early and keeps you hooked even when you want to look away."--Kirkus Reviews *starred review* "[An] impressive first novel, a complex and atmospheric thriller. ... Hollihan manages to combine a labyrinthine plot, full of intrigue, secret societies, and arcane lore, with a nuanced, character-driven narrative that provides insights into prison life while keeping readers guessing until the last page."--Publishers Weekly *starred review* "In this labyrinthine thriller, a female prison guard keeps an eye on a 19-year-old inmate who's helping another inmate create a graphic novel full of dark symbols about the prison's literally underground and abandoned isolation chambers."--The Pacific Northwest Inlander
"This chilling thriller is perfect for a snowy night. Leave the light on."--Hudson Valley News "Hollihan expertly breaches the subtly-constructed emotional walls of what we reveal and don’t reveal, what we try not to think about to get through our days and nights."--The Boston Globe "Hollihan manages to combine a labyrinthine plot, full of intrigue, secret societies, and arcane lore, with a nuanced, character-driven narrative that provides insights into prison life while keeping readers guessing until the last page."--The Washington Examiner "Not since OZ have we seen a prison world so vividly evoked; one that is as scary as it is fantastical and yet utterly realistic."--Spinetingler Magazine "Hollihan grippingly portrays the intricate social strata and power hierarchy of inmate life while never losing sight of the mystery at the core of the story. ... This is both a complex and thoughtful thriller. But it's also visceral and violent."--Winnipeg Free Press "Keith Hollihan is above providing easy answers. If you like your thrillers tied up neatly with a happy ending and a hero riding into the sunset, look elsewhere. However, if you don't mind pondering late one night whether love might, in fact, be the source of all the pain in the world, this intense, debut thriller could be the book for you."--Minneapolis Star-Tribune "Powerful, articulated, mesmerizing and filled with startling moments of insight into what separates people from monsters – not much at all – The Four Stages of Cruelty is a resonant powerhouse of a novel."--The Globe & Mail