MURDER GETS GRAPHIC: The Detection Club, by Jean Harambat

 

Far be it from me not to cave into peer pressure. When Kate Jackson reviewed the English translation of a French graphic novel placing seven members of the famed Detection Club into an actual mystery, I snapped like a long bean. Despite the fact that the English translation of this comic book mystery is currently only available as an e-book – in two parts, mind you – it all sounded too delicious to pass up. It turns out that –

But wait. First, let me tell you a sad story.

Once there was a boy who loved comic books. He loved the man in blue tights with a red cape who flew through the air, saved the world countless times, and was frightened of only one thing: a rainbow assortment of rocks from his home planet. He loved a 30th century group of heroes, each one possessed of a singularly useless power – like turning into iron, eating anything, transforming into a balloon of blubber – and yet somehow saving the world. The boy especially loved the guy in gray and blue with a cowl who flung himself over the dark city and battled colorful villains, all with the help of his beloved young partner, Brad Friedm- Robin the Boy Wonder.

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Every week this bright young lad would make his way to the comic book store to see which of his favorite titles – Detective, Action, The Legion of Super Heroes, Jimmy Olsen, Dial H for Hero – had been released. Clutching his precious stack of literary gold to his trembling breast, he would hurry all the way home and barricade himself in his own little Batcave to savor each adventure and to dream of the day when he, too, would cavort around in tights.

But this boy lived under the rule of a cruel queen, a woman who had no grasp of the way that comic books were systematically building and shaping the heroic moral character of her son. She insisted that he put these treasures aside for more paltry pursuits, like . . . “getting fresh air” . . . or . . . “finding friends your own age to play with.” She accused the comic books of being something foul, calling them “wastes of space” and “dust magnets.” And finally, this Cruella did the unthinkable: she tossed the whole collection into the trashbin.

The laugh was on her: there were some pretty nifty titles in that stack, including comics gold, like “The Death of Ferro Lad” or the imaginary story in Lois Lane where Superman marries three times (Lois, Lana Lang, and Lori Lemaris, the mermaid), only to have tragedy strike every single time! These comics could have paid for my college education. They could have made me a man of leisure, jet-setting around the world instead of grading papers. The only pleasure they give me now is that, fifty-five years later, I can still drive my mom into the kitchen, clutching her ears, with this story.

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The point of tormenting regaling you now with this tale is to illustrate that my relationship with the graphic novel had strong beginnings and then was dealt a near-fatal blow. I stopped reading just before comic books started getting a whole lot better. The art got better. The stories grew up. I found this out when I dated somebody with a bigger collection than I ever had. One of the many fine qualities about this person was that we shared the same tastes in popular culture. Some of my loveliest memories were of curling up with our stacks, reading quietly together, and then savoring our shared love for Mon-el and our antipathy for Matter Eater Lad.

My childhood friend Vivian, whom I have known longer than almost any non-family person, became a devout collector and introduced me to writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, to titles like Watchmen, Animal Man, Preacher, and Sandman. Viv did me the great honor of entrusting me with her property and letting me read these wonderful sagas. (Alas, she could never get me to appreciate Cerebro.)

When the chance comes along to mix my pleasures – to combine, say, the comic book with the classic mystery – I’m gonna jump at it. I had my last shot with the re-release of some old Ellery Queen comic books. (That guy knew how to play every genre!) I’m also going to come right out and say it: the French created a whole series of graphic novels of Christie’s work, and I’m looking for them at reasonable prices.

(Hey, that story turned out happier than I thought.)

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Okay, onto The Detection Club – at last! The bulk of the tale takes place on a remote island of the Cornwall coast where stands the ultra-modern mansion of billionaire Roderick Ghyll, who lives there with his gorgeous wife, his sulky step-daughter, his mad scientist protégé, and his servants, (butler, maid cook.) Ghyll has repurposed another man’s robot to be able to solve any written mystery put before it.

For Ghyll, what could be more delightful than to rub his robot pal in the faces of the world’s greatest GAD authors, and so he invites seven of them to his island as his guests. These include the club’s president, G.K. Chesterton, founding member Dorothy L. Sayers, Christie (of course!), Father Ronald Knox, author of the famous Decalogue of literary rules for the mystery, veteran writers A.E.W. Mason and Baroness Orczy, and the club’s newest  – and its first American – member, John Dickson Carr.

How soon do you think it’ll be before real murder rears its ugly head? Who cares, when you have this magnificent team to solve it?

First and foremost, this story works as a grand homage to the members of the Detection Club, to their celebrity in the eyes of fans, and to the remarkable work they did in forging a golden age for their genre. One of the great joys is discovering Harambat’s take on each of these characters: they’re not necessarily true to life, but enough of their real lives and reputations informs their character here that we embrace each version – and laugh quite a bit at, and with, them. The author pokes quite a bit of fun at them, and while I found some of his gibes at Christie confusing – he seems to confuse her with her creation Ariadne Oliver – I got a kick out of the other portrayals, especially Chesterton, who comes off as  particularly “Dr. Fell”-ian here.

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Ghyll and his household seem – and one must say, given what we’re playing with here, appropriately – less characters than types, at least at first. The dialogue takes on some surprising depths and is so rich with humor that it’s okay if not every joke lands with equal weight.

The first book sets up the story nicely, with a prologue introducing us to the tongue-in-cheek spectacle of a Detection Club initiation before propelling us to Ghyll’s island and the unfolding mystery. The artwork is truly lovely, although my one problem is that it was awkward to read this on an iPad. Show a full page, and the print was too small to read. Expand the image and it becomes a bit of a trick to advance the text. Still, it was nice to hold the frame on to one particularly beautiful panel after another, searching for details – and maybe a clue? – in the magnified text.

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The story meanders a bit here before reaching a lively cliffhanger, and then it’s on to Part II which, in terms of straight on mystery to be honest, sacrifices a little oomph for a more whimsical resolution. This actually makes sense, for despite the fact that this case is a team effort, it is Chesterton who emerges as the Sleuth First Class, and he was never known for fair play. In that sense, the ending unfolds in a spirit that is more Father Brown than Fell or Poirot.

That may be a little disappointing in terms of plot, but ultimately this a fairy tale, in the trappings of a mystery, about a most remarkable team of authors, and Harambat’s love for the Detection Club, equal parts deference and winking humor, should appeal to all of us who hold this esteemed group most dear.

 

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12 thoughts on “MURDER GETS GRAPHIC: The Detection Club, by Jean Harambat

  1. You know, Brad, I was reading this post with my ‘educator/researcher’s’ hat on, actually. There are several studies that suggest strongly that graphic novels and stories can be very helpful classroom tools. When they’re done well, they tell the story (i.e. don’t ‘water it down’), but are of great assistance for students who are reluctant readers, or struggle with reading for other reasons, or who are learning English. And once students do interact with graphic novels, they’re more likely to read more often. They’re an important part of a teacher’s repertoire. So thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one.

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  2. Glad my recommendation was not a dud one! You certainly had me holding my breath whilst reading this review! Very much appreciated getting a second opinion on this one. I really hope the publishers consider doing hard copies of it (and any sequels), as I agree that you definitely need to zoom in to read the writing.

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  3. I think ‘getting fresh air’ and ‘finding friends your own age to play with’ are phrases hard-wired into the female genes in case they give birth to sons who would rather stay in and read. My mother and grandmother used exactly that turn of phrase.

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  4. I’ll be tempted to pick this up if it’s ever released in physical form. I’ve long had the fantasy of GAD works by the likes of Carr being illustrated in a Tintin-style format. Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit would be sublime.

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  5. Maybe it’s just my evil streak, but I’d have had someone not a member of the club solve the crime. Perhaps the ferryman corrects their logic on the trip home …

    I read Harambat’s comic about David Niven and the impersonation of Montgomery in the war. Rather fun.

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    1. There’s an Asian butler that you just feel is going to do this in the end. But it doesn’t happen. I agree: I love to see amateur sleuths get their comeuppance!

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    1. I used to own that issue . . . before my mother threw away all my comic books, saying that they were dust magnets. If she had let me keep them, I probably would have been a homeowner ten years earlier. I never thought much of Ferro Lad or his power. It seemed an “easy” death for DC to add to the narrative. As I dimly recall, this issue was part of a multi-issue saga about this villainous team the Legion was facing. The writing on these stories got so much better a few years later; fortunately, even though I had stopped collecting, I began dating someone who loved the Legion as much as I had, and I got to catch up (with much better stories.)

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      1. There is a story here.
        Ferro Lad first appeared in Adventure Comics #346 and was created by Jim Shooter. When Jim Shooter first created the character, he intended Ferro Lad to be black, but editor Mort Weisinger vetoed the idea, saying “we’ll lose our distribution in the South”.
        Being annoyed at not getting his way, Shooter decided to kill this character !
        When I was a kid, I would also go every week to the comic store which imported comics from USA and buy several titles and read them eagerly. But it was my father who used to scold me for buying such trash !

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      2. Then good for Jim Shooter, I say. A few years later, as I recall, when the Legion was rebooted, some characters were reimagined as black. It’s no surprise that much of what I have enjoyed in my live – classic mysteries, classic films, TV and radio, comic books – bear the taint of casual systemic racism. 2020 has been, quite frankly, a terrible year, but if out of it can come the seeds of real social change . . . well it would be nice if something good came out of this mess.

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