Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #3: Two Treasuries of Murder by Rick Geary

Rick Geary has been retelling historical murders as small graphic novels for about two decades now -- first a series of famous Victorian crimes, and then moving slightly forward in time to the first half of the Twentieth Century.

I recently re-read two of them, because I'd bought new copies to replace ones lost in my 2011 flood. Since they're both old books, and part of basically the same series, I thought I might as well throw them together into one post. I didn't realize at the time that these two books straddled the switch from Victorian to XXth Century. That's potentially a major change...but it wasn't really. Geary just was extending the era he was writing about somewhat, while keeping the style and matter of the books consistent.

So The Lindbergh Child was published in 2008; it's obviously the story of the kidnapping and (accidental?) death of Charles Lindberg's infant son in New Jersey in 1932.  And The Saga of the Bloody Benders was published the year before, telling the more historically obscure story of a family (?) of murderous shopkeepers who terrorized Labette County, Kansas in 1870. (Geary was born in Wichita, and his work has often returned to Kansas -- it's a place he knows well.)

In both cases, Geary is working with historical records -- obviously there's a a lot more around the Lindbergh kidnapping, but the Bender case is reasonably well-known in Kansas, with plenty of research done over the years. What both have in common is what seems to attract Geary to all of his stories: an essential core of mystery, of things unknown and unknowable. Did Bruno Hauptmann kidnap the baby Lindbergh, or was he a minor conspirator framed by police? Who were the Benders, and where did they go afterward?

I don't want to attribute motives to Geary, but it's clear this project is important to him: no one spends twenty years doing the same thing artistically for no reason. He's clearly drawn to the mystery of murder, the questions of motive and culprit, and the ways news fans out into the world after something shocking. Both of these books have his trademarks: precise lines to delineate people, places and things in historical detail; panels that leap from one image to the next to cover a large subject in a short space; careful maps and plans of houses and spaces; laconic narration that occasionally asks those big questions of who and how and why; and copious quotes from the speech and letters and documents surrounding the case.

There's no explicit motive behind the series of books: maybe they exist to show what human beings are capable of, maybe they exist to cast light in dark places. Geary has no lessons for his readers. He's not as quirky and light of touch as in his non-murder books, but the murder books aren't dour. There's no tone of moralizing: just a questing mind, trying to lay out the facts as best they can be known, and sketch the possible explanations for those facts.

These are two good books in a good series; the quality level has been consistent since 1995's Jack the Ripper. They're not books about murder for people who want to be whipped into a frenzy of hate, or to know something for sure -- they're for those of us who live in the real world of possibilities and conjectures, who can be satisfied with what can actually be known. I hope there are a lot of us. I tend to doubt it.

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