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.|
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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".
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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."
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.|
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!|