Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 105 (5/19) -- Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry

Britten and Brulightly is an impressive debut graphic novel with some odd choices in tone and a slightly confused manner about itself. In a perfect world, I'd try to mimic those aspects in my review -- but, sadly, ours is not a perfect world, and I'm writing this late on a Sunday night, so I'm afraid I may be notably less successful at my task than Berry was at hers.

Fernandez Britten is a private detective -- a researcher, he calls himself --in a time and place that never quite comes clear. It probably takes place somewhere in the UK -- where Berry herself lives -- but the specifics are obscure, and the trappings of modern society are missing here, so this story may be set twenty or forty or sixty years ago. Britten used to do a lot of work on divorce cases -- or his cases caused divorces; so much that he became known as "the Heartbreaker." And his partner is Stewart Brulightly.

Stewart Brulightly is a talking teabag that sits in Britten's pocket.

That's the first jarring element, and it never becomes clear if Berry intends the reader to take Brulightly as a bit of magic realism or a sign that Britten is deeply mentally unwell. (Probably not the latter, in the end, since Britten does end up solving this case in his usual way.)

This particular case follow Britten's new plan -- he only deals with murders. (Other private detectives, fictional and real, have generally found trouble with that limitation -- the police rarely like intrusion in their own work -- but it's pretty common in fiction.) He's hired by Charlotte Maughton to investigate the death of her fiance Berni Kudos. Kudos was found hanged in his own home, with a note -- but Charlotte is sure that he was murdered.

Britten also has something he's sure of -- that this case intersects another one, from twenty or so years before (Berry never makes the precise timing clear, which is unfortunate and detracts from the mystery story), involving Kudos's older brother. And so he begins to investigate, following Kudos's life from one end and tracking down the principals of that earlier case from the other end.

The case is frankly bewildering, with a large cast who have complicated relationships to each other, and Berry doesn't handle identifications as well as she could have. (Her dialogue, including Britten's internal monologues, are all very believable, but she needed to sacrifice a bit of naturalism in the service of untangling her complicated plot.) Britten has several theories along the way, each of which is more convoluted (and slightly harder to comprehend) than the one before it, until, finally, the truth comes out.

Berry doesn't quite make Britten's essential sadness at his role in the world as stark as it should be -- he feels at times like simply an unlucky, or insufficiently discrete, investigator. The complication of the plot makes Britten's existential dread -- his sense of the inevitability of what he always discovers -- less reasonable, since he had to be smart and lucky to get to the end. But, with all that, Britten and Brulightly is an assured and atmospheric graphic detective story, with art that completely supports and enhances the story. It's a real treat to find a first book-length fiction from anyone that succeeds as well as this book does.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Builders And The Butchers - Vampire Lake
via FoxyTunes

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