Saturday, 5 March 2016

Scene Of The Crime (#1-4) PART ONE

"Try not to be too much of a smartass." - Paul Raymonds

I'm a big fan of detective fiction, it's about the only type of non-comicbook related reading I indulge in these days.  I'm also a fan of the DC series Gotham Central which focused on the life and work of the Gotham PD, an even grittier than usual take on the Batverse.  The writers on that series were Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka and the main artist was Michael Lark who's art is absolutely brilliant and perfect for crime fiction.  I decided on checking out each writer individually, Greg Rucka on Batwoman and Lazarus (both excellent, I'll be looking at the first Lazarus volume later this month) and this story by Ed Brubaker which was one of his first professional gigs and as a bonus is pencilled by... Michael Lark (inked my Sean Philips on issues #2-4) which was originally published by Vertigo in the late 90's and has just been reissued in a lovely hardcover edition, with the bonus Christmas story and various "Behind the Scenes" bits and bobs, including a retrospective assessment by Brubaker.  He says while he is proud of the work, some aspects make him cringe now.  Mostly the fact that he believes he crammed too many words into the first person narrative captions, and it is true that the book is extremely textually dense (hence my splitting this look at it into two parts).  But maybe because I have been raised on UK comics like 2000AD where decompression is not an option and cramming stories with text (at least back in the 80's) was the norm but I don't find it problematic.  So I don't think it's anything Brubaker needs to apologise for.  Anyway, let's get started with a twisted tale of a San Francisco based private detective and his entanglement in a case involving a distressed dame, a hippy cult and a deep dark family secret.

It starts with our protagonist Jack Herriman thinking about death.  He'd been hired to find a missing kid and had found him dead in a dumpster.  He was eleven years old.

Jack: "I just couldn't understand why the world would want want to bring about his end".

Then a man called Paul Raymonds steps back into his life.  They used to be like family but have drifted apart.  Paul gives him a job saying the woman who needs his help will be along tommorrow.
Jack is given the job by Paul.
As he heads home, Jack muses that the relationship between him and Paul had just got twisted up a long time ago, as well as him being "a reminder of the trouble I'd gotten myself into."

Next day Jack is phone by the woman who says she is on her way.  Jack's office is just down from his bedroom so he is in no rush, still he is nervous about meeting with her in a way he can't pin down.  He regards a photo of Paul Raymond dressed as a beat cop along with his partner, Jack's dad, and can't understand why Paul would send work his way.
Alex Jordan.
Then an attractive blonde woman appears in the doorway, her name is Alex Jordan and she's who Paul has sent. Jack asks how she knows him, she says she a temp at a law firm where he gave a deposition.  Her case is a missing persons one, her little sister Maggie, she and her mum haven't heard from her in over a month.  She's checked her apartment and found she hasn't been back for clean clothes so they have no idea where she is or what she is doing.

Jack asks why they don't inform the police.  Alex says Maggie used to be a bit of a wild child and might have slipped back into her old ways so police involvement could be bad for her.  Jack asks where she last saw her, and Alex says January the 3rd, she was going to some kind of New Age seminar.

"Whoa" says Jack, he doesn't kidnap people from cults.  Maggie says that won't have happened - "you'd find that pretty amusing if you knew her."  She hands over pictures and a flyer for something called the "Lunarhouse".  Jack warns her that missing persons cases are either incredinly easy or incredibly hard and he should know which by tommorrow night and she can decide if she wants to carry on then.
The lead.
After she has gone, he makes some calls and reckons she's Paul's mistress which is why he doesn't want to handle the case himself, and he sent her to Jack because despite everything he knows he can trust him.  Also he must have known the effect Maggie's photo would have on him:

Jack: "She was exactly my type.. right down to the quiet sadness in her eyes that most people would overlook".

He goes downstairs to the "Scene Of The Crime" photographic gallery he lives and works above.  It's run by an elderly couple, his uncle Knut and his girlfriend Molly.  They raised Jack from age twelve.  Knut Herriman is a famous crime scene photographer who has been working since the nineteen forties.  Molly has been engaged to him all Jack's life but always manages to find a way to postpone the wedding.  Her latest excuse is not until Knut retires, "which he can't quite bring himself to do."

Jack moved in when Knut was packing up his old office four years ago when he was getting his life back together after spending many years "trying to blow it apart".  Becoming a P.I. seemed like a good idea because the only thing he was any good at was getting into trouble.
Fun and frolics in the Lunarhouse.
He arrives at the Lunarhouse and goes inside unchallenged.  It's a typical hippy commune, people smoking weed and having sex.  He asks about Maggie but one of the hippies accuses him of being a "narc".  Before things can go badly for Jack, Mitchell Luna who runs the place appears.

Jack shows Maggie's picture to him and Mitchell tries to conceal his surprise.  He says she looks familiar but he can't be sure.  She definitely isn't with them now.  He says Lunarhouse is a free community, "we don't ask for two kinds of I.D. and a credit card."  He tells Jack he has a lot of negative energy and should check with Ilsa at the front desk about Maggie.
Mitchell Luna.
Jack thinks that Mitchell definitely recognised Maggie and briefly looked scared when he showed him her photo. Ilsa confirms Maggie was there.  She stayed for ten days and mostly kept to herself, the only person she slept with was Mitchell.  Jack is surprised he couldn't remember her, but Ilsa says that's because he sleeps with everyone.

Outside Jack rummages through Mitchell's rubbish and gets "incredibly lucky".  He finds a message for Mitchell from Maggie with a phone number on it.  Then one of the hippies spots him and chases him, but Jack easily outruns him and returns to his car.

The phone number belongs to a motel called "Sleepy Shores" in Santa Cruz.  His check on Maggie's car had come back negative so the motel is the only lead he has.  He decides to drive there and scope the place out rather than risk spooking her over the phone.

He tells the motel manager he is from an insurance company and he confirms she is staying there under the name "Maggie Johnson".  She regularly disappears and comes back "ripped to the gills" on drink.  He calls her a real "wild one".
Chivalry fail.
Jack decides to stake the place out and wait for her.  He calls Knut to help him out.  Knut arrives and says looking out for an attractive woman is more fun that serving supeonas to truckers.  At midnight, Knut is asleep.  Jack thinks that he comes along with him on stakeouts because he used to do them with his dad.

Jack: "He never talked about it, but I was sure he missed my dad a lot."

Finally Maggie shows up, but she is very drunk and has a man with her.  She passes out and the man starts rooting through her bag.  Jack runs up to stop him and gets punched in the face and kicked in the gut for his trouble.  Knut comes running up and scares the man off using his camera.  Jack thinks that he knows he's no fighter but, "it was still embarrassing to be saved by a sixty eight year old man."
Sobering Maggie up.
Then he notices Maggie has a gun amongst the things in her bag.  He leaves a message with Alex saying he found her sister, but doesn't say where yet.  He wants to question Maggie first and find out what she is running away from.  He contemplates the gun and how the last time he pointed one at someone he wasn't ready to kill them.

He and Knut put Maggie in the bathtub and turn the cold shower on her giving her a rude awakening.  Knut heads home while Maggie gets changed and she and Jack go to a diner for a chat over something to eat.  Jack notes she doesn't think much of Paul when he tells her who asked him to find her.  He also tells her he knows about what she did at the Lunarhouse.

Maggie says she and her sister were raised in a place like the Lunarhouse, "It's not like I had some cosmic moment and decided to 'drop out'".  He asks why she is in hiding and why she carries a gun.  She says the gun is for protection.  She said she realised the Lunarhouse wasn't what she needed:

Maggie: "I mean.. I know what I thought.  I was looking for some little piece of my father or something."

When she left and got on the highway she couldn't face going home and just wanted to disappear. Jack asks what happened to her father.  Maggie says he died a long time ago at the commune she was raised in, she barely remembers him.  When Jack commiserates, she says "I'm pretty sure he was an asshole."

Then she asks Jack how he lost his eye.  Jack notes that people don't usually notice it that quickly.  His dad was a cop who had made a big drugs bust and pissed off a lot of the local gangs.  But it was his partner who had made them really mad by betraying some of his confidential informants.  One day when his own car was in the shop, Jack's dad was driving his partner's car.  He dropped Jack off at home and the car exploded, killing him and injuring Jack badly enough that he lost an eye.
Maggie and Jack part.
Maggie is sympathetic and Jack says "it messed me up pretty bad for a long time".  She says it puts her woes into perspective, finding out that others have it worse than you.

Jack: "Sure it can.  But who wants their life put into perspective?"

They stay and talk more, she agrees to call her sister and tell her she's alright.  By the time Jack drops her off at the motel it "felt more like the end of a first date than a case."  He gives her his card and she promises to call him, he makes sure she gets back to her room OK and thinks that maybe he could save her from her self-destructive impulses, the way no one did for him.

Jack: "Whatever the case, it was a moot point, because she was dead by morning".

He gets the call at 9:30 in the morning, his card having been discovered amongst her things.  He drives down to the scene of the crime because the lead detective wants to question him and he needs to see for himself.  Knut comes along as well.  Jack is unsure as to why she has ended up dead, "Maggie was just a confused kid running from past mistakes".

Jack: "But maybe the mistakes were bigger than I figured.  Or maybe she ran too far in the wrong direction."

Knut takes photos of the crime scene and Jack thinks how being his nephew gets him a "respect I hadn't always deserved".
The scene of the crime.
The sergeant at the scene tells Jack she took three shots in the back.  Jack asks about her gun and the sergeant says they didn't find one.  Jack then fills him in on Maggie's backstory.  The sergeant says he kinda messed up letting her keep the gun, he also says the motive can't have been robbery as she had a suitcase filled with ten thousand dollars still in her room.  Jack then goes to the motel clerk and asks for a list of outgoing calls from her room that night.  There were three, the one Jack made to her sister and the other two were to Lunarhouse.

He and Knut leave, Jack assumes the money is connected with the motive of the crime, maybe she was a blackmailer although he didn't like thinking of her as one.  But he can't think of any other explanation for the money or the murder.  He drops Knut off and tells him he's going to keep pursuing the case, "I just feel like I screwed up big time and I can't just wait around for someone else to find out why."

He goes to the Lunarhouse and finds it completely empty of people and things.  He goes upstairs to the attic and discovers it was a weed farm, "millions could be made in a room like this."  Outside he offers two homeless men five dollars if they can tell him when the hippies packed up and left.  One of them says around seven o'clock.  That was when Maggie's body was discovered, "that was a little too much of a coincidence."
Lunarhouse is now deserted.
The two homeless men start fighting over the five dollars and get into a punch up over the money.  Jack intervenes and gets punched as well.  He retaliates and suddenly realises he's beating up homeless men.  He goes back to his car to calm down.

Jack: "I was losing it... things had been spinning out of control all day.  I could feel the ground slipping out from under my feet."

He drives over to Alex Jordan's house and waits for her to come back from identifying her sister's body.  She returns with an older woman and go inside.  Jack knocks on the door and the older woman answers it.  She is Alex and Maggie's mother.  Alex has taken a sleeping pill so she can't talk to him and she wonders why she should help a man who left her daughter alone with a loaded gun.

Jack says he wasn't paid to kidnap her, and if Alex had been "more up front about the facts" he would have been more cautious.  When their mother queries this, Jack wants to know why Maggie would have ten thousand dollars in cash, was she a blackmailer?  She says anything was possible with Maggie, they had drifted apart over time.  She wasn't even that shocked she had died, "I guess I'd been expecting it for years."
Maggie and Alex's mum.
She tells Jack to go, they don't want his help.  Jack asks what Alex meant when she said Maggie had a "wild past".  She refuses to elaborate and says they made a mistake not going to the police.  He asks to use the phone before he goes and sees Alex in the bedroom, wide awake and sobbing. "Why couldn't either of these women just tell me the truth?" thinks Jack.

Jack visits his source at the police station and finds out Maggie had quite the record for petty crime.  Drugs, arson and prostitution as a teenager and a couple of busts for pot and coke as an adult, "nothing that seemed to suggest a sudden leap to blackmail."  He also finds out that Alex had been arrested for stabbing her mother, but let off with probation as the wounds were not severe.  Their mum also had a record for drugs and prostitution in the 1970's but nothing in the twenty years since.

Jack asks if Luna has a record, but despite having been bought in for questioning over underage sex allegations his record is clean.  Jack then goes to confront Paul saying he knew Maggie was into something fucked up.  Paul says he's as surprised about the money as Jack is and Alex knows nothing about it either.
Jack updates Paul on the case.
Jack tells him everything he found out and his theory that Maggie might have been blackmailing Luna, even though that doesn't feel right.  He says he's going to keep looking into the case, and Paul says he should have been a cop.  Jack sarcastically says they need "more cops who are afraid to shoot people."  And he leaves.

He goes to a bar and meets his friend Steve Ellington who is also a P.I.  He's a real Dashiel Hammett style investigator and probably better at it than Jack.  He fills Jack in on what they know about Luna.  He showed up in San Francisco in early '97 and they had him under surveillance for attracting runaways and possible pot growing and trafficking which Jack confirms.  All they know about Luna is that he was born in Fresno in 1950.

They've probably retreated to their commune in Santa Rosa where they own thirteen acres.  Steve says it's locked up tight but he thinks he can get them in.  Jack says he just wants to talk to Luna, but Steve says he's unlikely to grant him an appointment now.  He's going to come along because Luna's main men are the Pullwaters who have done time for armed robbery and attempted murder, "you need a bodyguard Jacko."
Steve Ellington.
They drink and Steve says it's been a long time since he saw Jack consume alchohol, the business with Maggie must have really messed him up.  He describes her to Steve and he says she sounds familiar.  Then he tells Jack someone called Gwen is back in town.  Jack wonders if she asked after him, Steve says she wouldn't even talk to him and they carry on drinking.

Later, drunk, he goes and finds Gwen.  She says she thought he quit drinking, but he says it's been a rough week.  She says she doesn't care.  Stumbling after her he tries to apologise, saying he feels terrible for not explaining things properly to her.  She calls him a "fucker" and gets him into a cab.

As he is driven home he thinks back to how they spent four and a half years together, drunk and sober, off junk and on it, "but a secret had built a wall between them... and ultimately ripped my life apart.  I had deserted her then".  Back home, Knut and Molly are still up.  Knut says reading the Lunarhouse leaflets had reminded him of an old case.
Drunk Jack makes a fool of himself.
In '83 there had been a fire at a commune where twelve people had died.  He dug out the photos and in one picture there stands an adult woman and two girls, Suzanne, Alexandra and Margaret Johnson.  The body at their feet is Geoff Jordan, Maggie and Alex's father.  The man who ran the commune, Virgil Peterson, was assumed to be amongst the dead.  But now Luna had cropped up with the same philosophies, "the resemblance was slight, but it was there" thinks Jack as he contemplates the old photos.

Jack: "And if Mitchell Luna was responsible for the death of her father, that gave Maggie a pretty solid motive for blackmail."

He's left wondering why Maggie would sleep with Luna is she knew who he was and how much did her mother and sister know.  He goes to confront Alex, who is with Paul.  Aggressively, Jack says he thinks she knew Mitchell Luna was the man who killed their father.  But Maggie got scared or selfish and that's why she split and why Alex didn't want the police involved.  Alex, in some distress, says blackmail was never part of the plan.  They wanted to get back at him, turn him into the police.  She doesn't know why Maggie changed her mind, only that he had a way of turning things around.

Alex: "We should have just killed him".
The plot thickens!
And on that note, we're about halfway through so time to take a break.  So far Brubaker has crafted an intense and gripping mystery with an interesting main protagonist in Jack.  It's unfortunate that this never went further than this miniseries because all the backstory and cast members introduced are just begging for further elaboration that never came.  That said what is contained in this story gives it depth and pathos and the fantastic art by Michael Lark and Sean Philips adds immeasurably to the atmosphere giving the whole thing a very "street level" feel.  Join me in a couple of days as all secrets are revealed and questions are answered.


  1. hey I really liked gotham central as well! i was gutted when it ended, especially the way it ended. I've nver heard of this comic before but it does look cool :)

  2. Oh good to know I'm not the only person who got to the end of the fourth Gotham Central TPB and thought there were a bunch of missing pages. Hope you enjoy the wrap up to this story too.

  3. Problem with being a big fan of detective fiction is, don't you eventually get to the stage where you've read/watched every single way of committing a murder that there can possibly be? Then the plots get too easy to predict.

    I don't think a comics writer should apologise for making their readers have to actually, y'know, read.

    My type of woman definitely has quiet sadness in her eyes, but that normally comes after they've met me :-D

    I suppose being engaged without ever getting married means you're more or less permanently attached to somebody, so it's like you actually are married, only you don't have to change your name or wear a dress or anything.

    See, this is why bead curtains are no substitute for actual real doors. Bloomin' hippies and their ignorance about how the inside of a house should look.

    Mitchell Luna looks like Simon Pegg.

    Hippies are easy to outrun. It's all the weed :-D

    This guy doesn't like guns? Are we sure he's American?

    Maggie won't be sober. She'll be drunk, cold, wet and annoyed. Easier to question her when she's awake though, I guess.

    A good way of getting people to spill private information is by telling them something private/personal of your own.

    Why didn't he just give the hobos five dollars each?

  4. You know Lucy, that is a bit of a problem with the detective genre. I watch a lot of crime TV shows and it used to piss my sisters off that I'd predict whodunnit and why after the first ten mins. Now Chloe is only working part-time she watches detective shows with me and mum and I have actually taught her how to predict whodunnit and why and now we hi-five each other when we get proved right :D I have to say it was knowledge of a couple of tropes that had me correctly figuring out the mystery in this comic as I read it, but if the journey is picturesque, I don't mind knowing the destination as it were.

    There's definitely an art to knowing how much work you need to rely on the artist doing if you're a comicbook writer I think, Brubaker obviously learned to trust Michael Lark more in their later collaborations, but the verbosity here works for me. Fits the genre.

    You weren't a kid in the 1970's whose parents were hippies like I was, and beaded curtains were everywhere, then people realised what a bad idea they were in a cold country like Britain and we got our doors back.

    Weed is a perforance enhancing drug. If what you're enhancing is laughing hysterically at nothing and falling over a hedge. I dunno, never touched the stuff myself.

    He does have a reason to not like guns, because obviously this being the USA not liking guns is weird and needs an excuse.

    And waste five whole dollars on a hobo in 1998? Check you out big spenda! :D

  5. I just feel sorry for hobos. If I were a hobo I'd want somebody to give me money so I could drink booze and forget the whole awful situation for a few hours. Like, I went on this Duke of Edinburgh thing a couple of times, and sleeping outdoors sucks. It's cold and the ground is freezing.

  6. When I was young you didn't see people sleeping on the streets in Manchester, wasn't until the late 80's that the homeless began appearing on the streets. "Caring Conservatism" in action /sarcasm.