Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review of The Green River Killer

In some ways, the graphic novel is the perfect genre for crime writing. The artwork allows writers to highlight the atmosphere that is such a key part to crime writing and the visual presentation allows writers to cede the mechanical logistics of getting guns in hands and dames in cars—which tend to reveal weak writing skills—to the visual artists. The best comic crime writers, Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, Frank Miller (though this bastard doesn't get a link), are able to merge the best parts of each genre to create a totally unique and compelling product. Furthermore, comics allow crime writing to stretch its boundaries, as in Steven Niles Criminal Macabre series and John Layman's and Rob Guillory's Chew series. And, of course, one of our most important and powerful cultural creations is really graphic crime writing; Batman.

However, I'm not sure the advantages translate as directly for true crime writing as it does for crime fiction. There is a lurid kind of voyeurism to true crime writing, one that can be mitigated with a legitimate sense of anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Most read to see the blood and guts, and all are comforted that, regardless of the thrill, we could learn something about ourselves and the world from those blood and guts. But written descriptions of a corpse mutilated by a serial killer are very different from illustrations of a corpse mutilated by a serial killer. One of the reasons Art Spiegelman, decided to tell his father's story with mice and cats, was because the illustrations would have been too gruesome if they had been illustrated people.

The Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen doesn't seem to have figured out exactly what it wants to be. It opens with a brutal, but not gruesome, scene, one that we don't feel is over the top only because it is true, but all of the other brutality inherent in the story Jensen tells is muted. It feels more like an homage to his father, the detective who put, by far, the most hours into solving the string of murders in the Seattle area, and there is now doubt Detective Tom Jensen deserves the honor. But most of Jensens' work was data compilation; the absolutely indispensable police work at the core of all successful investigations, that always gets left out of crime fiction because it is so boring to watch.

Over 40 women, mostly prostitutes, were murdered and their bodies found near Green River in the Seattle area. For decades Jensen pursued hundreds of different leads for thousands of different suspects, pioneering the use of computers in detection. For most of it, they couldn't be sure whether it was all the work of one killer or whether there were copy cats. Eventually forensic technology caught up with their needs and they were able to get a DNA identification of one of their early suspects, a man named Gary Ridgeway. Eventually, Gary confessed to being the Green River Killer in order to plea bargain a life sentence from a death sentence.

Most of the story is of the interviews conducted with Ridgeway as he gave evidence of his murders. Flashbacks filled in details of the investigation and showed some of the effects of the work on Detective Jensen. Though the book has little to say about the greater questions of justice and law of life and of murder, it's clear why his son wanted to write an homage for him. Detective Jensen is one of those heroes whose unshakeable persistence and unquestionable decency is almost guaranteed to go unnoticed.

I'm sure there is a book in Detective Jensen's story, but it's not this one. In this world of data-overload, a book about how Detective Jensen pioneered and mastered computers in detecting might be the most important, and, if the writing is successful, the most entertaining version of his story. Someone interested in the Green River Killer story would likely appreciate the straight forward presentation of one of the major plot lines in those horrific events and connoisseurs of true crime might want it on their shelves. But for everyone else, it might be better to stick with Brubaker and Batman, and hope someone else taps the potential for the true crime graphic novel.

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