Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #12: The Elwell Enigma by Rick Geary

Rick Geary's major project for the last couple of decades has been a long series of graphic novels, each about a particular famous murder case from American history -- he began with the "Treasury of Victorian Murder" in eight volumes from 1995 to 2007, and has since moved slightly forward in time with the "Treasury of XXth Century Murder," with six books so far. The Elwell Enigma stands next to that series: it's not part of it, officially, but it's the same kind of story and sees Geary using the same skills and techniques.

We could speculate why Elwell Enigma is not part of the main series: it's a bit shorter than the series standard -- 48 pages vs. 80 -- and the case was not solved at all (though many of the other cases Geary has covered have serious mysteries remaining, or questions of whether the right people were punished). But that really doesn't matter: this is the kind of thing Geary does well, and it's a fine package telling an enticing story.

Unfortunately, this won't be widely available: it was a Kickstarter campaign last year, and the book doesn't seem to be available to anyone who didn't back that campaign. And, if I'm adding things up correctly, that means there are only about 250 copies of this floating around, unless Geary printed up a bunch of them for other purposes and will release those later. (Which would be very nice for Geary fans.)

In any case, this is the story of the murder of the wealthy bridge expert Joseph B. Elwell, who was shot to death in the early morning of June 11, 1920 in his Upper West Side home. Geary doesn't have as much to work with here as in some of his previous books: Elwell was a womanizer (something he had in common with several other murder victims and perpetrators in the series), but didn't have any single really scandalous affair. And it looks like the police might even have been honest this time: they searched diligently for a lead, but none of Elwell's paramours or bridge students could have killed him. (The alternative there is that the real killer was quietly hushed up for whatever reason, but Geary doesn't even give that as a possibility, so presumably there was no gossip at the time that he was able to turn up.)

So the case in Elwell Enigma is very much an enigma: Elwell was shot by someone he let into his home soon after the milkman did his rounds that morning -- in bare feet and pyjamas, without hairpiece or dentures -- and that person got away completely. This was all nearly a hundred years ago, though, so -- unless the perpetrator was very young then and very old now -- everyone involved is now dead. Because of that enigmatic aspect, Elwell Enigma is not as satisfying as many of Geary's similar books: he just didn't have enough material to work with here (or he left out a lot of blind alleys the police followed to keep the book to this size, perhaps).

Backers of Elwell Enigma also got a 24-page PDF of older Geary crime comics, called "Digital Murder," which collected a bunch of his very first murder stories from the early '80s -- mostly set in middle America of the time, and presented as true, though they might actually be fictional. (It also includes a 2007 story, "Blood on My Hands," in a similar style.) I'm a fan of those early Geary comics -- their matter-of-fact laconic narration, the quick panel transitions, the dispassionate narrators, the casual bloodsheet, the deeply amusing juxtaposition of the early Geary's round, lumpy, cartoony characters with the dark deeds narrated. But, as far as I remember, "Digital Murder" was an unexpected bonus; I can't find any reference to it on the Kickstarter page.

But, maybe, if Geary was digging through his files to collect these, that means there's a chance that a larger collection of those old strips -- maybe even the ones that aren't about murders -- could surface, something to replace those old copies of At Home with Rick Geary and Housebound with Rick Geary. I can only hope.

My apologies if I've made this book sound too enticing, since I imagine it would be very difficult to find. Maybe you know a Geary fan who can lend it to you?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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