Rick Geary, A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lindbergh Child (NBM, 2008) & Famous Players (NBM, 2009). $9.99, each. paperback
By Elizabeth Hewitt
A year ago, I decided I would try to entertain both my students and myself and offer a class on true crime literature. It was in searching for exemplary texts on famous nineteenth century cases (my favorite) that I discovered Rick Geary and his masterful Treasury of Victorian Murder series. In these universally acclaimed books, Geary takes his readers through the cases of Mary Rogers, Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes, Lizzie Borden and several others. While Geary always chooses the most sensational of cases, his approach to true crime is methodical and procedural. But his black and white line, which resembles lino prints or wood etchings, conveys both incredible precision and artistic warmth as he leads us through the historical murders.
A historian at heart, Geary always chooses cases that are significant not only for their own details but because they are symptomatic of a cultural moment. And all his books describe the cacophonous public responses to the cases; never succumbing to the hysteria that characterizes sensational murders, Geary calmly details this tumult. My worry, however, was that Geary would eventually run out of material for his Victorian Murders, since while there is never any shortage of crime (in any century) there are a limited number of historically-significant cases. Thankfully with the turn to the 21st century, Geary had the entire 20th century and its celebrated crimes open to his analysis and artistry. In 2008 he began the Treasury of XXth Century Murder with the celebrated kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, The Lindberg Child. This year he published Famous Players, which tells the story of the director William Desmond Taylor’s murder.
Both books follow the basic template of his earlier Victorian Murder series: they provide a bibliography; they give birds-eye maps of the crime scene and the region (or regions) where the crime took place; and they briefly describe the historical setting that makes the case so important in its historical moment. The Lindberg Child rehearses how Charles Lindbergh became celebrated hero; Famous Players outlines the growth of Hollywood and the early film studio moguls. Each then turns to the murder, the investigation of the murder, and the aftermath of the futile investigations. Like many true crime aficionados Geary likes unsolved cases, but unlike many true crime authors he refuses to shape his narrative towards clear conclusions and indictments. Never playing his authorial role as prosecutorial, he instead winds his tale through the numerous investigations. But his drawings are never speculative: this is not CSI-style narrative in which he represents possible events. Instead, and this is a most wonderful aspect of all his books, he only provides visual representations of events and objects for which there is no epistemological uncertainty. In the Lindbergh case, for example, we see the ransom notes, the broken ladder, the baby’s thumb-guard, because all such objects were found. And Geary is liberal in his details, revealing to us minutiae that may or may not be important (like for example, the peanut shells swept out of Mabel Norman’s car in Famous Players.) His graphic narratives force us to stitch together the clues and stories—giving us all the pleasure of case-building.
In this way, Geary fathoms what makes comics such an ideal form for true crime lovers. I know there are true crime readers out there who like to be disciplined by their authors, who like to be told who done it and why, and I suppose such readers won’t appreciate Geary’s adamant refusal to direct our conclusions. But Geary understands that the real pleasure of reading history, criminal cases, and comics is that we aren’t rendered passive. And he recognizes that the discomfit we feel from not knowing all the answers can be assuaged only by knowing more, always more. Geary’s mastery—as both artist and storyteller—is allowing us to feel comfortable in our uncertainty by describing it with precise detail. In this way, his slender books written in formulaic style brilliantly capture not only the historical moments he records within their own pages, but our own.