Review time! with <i>Louise Brooks: Detective</i>

"I don't know how much more of this I can take; she's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake"

I don't love Rick Geary's work in general, not because he's not a good artist (he is) or because his work isn't interesting (it is) but because he generally picks topics to write about that are "torn from the headlines" - real-life stories about people doing horrible things - and he tends to be very journalistic about it. When I've read his work in the past, it tends to be very informative about whatever topic he's writing on, but he does so in a very straightforward way, without any narrative verve in the story.

Yes, you'll learn about the Lindbergh baby, to use one topic about which he's written, but it's very dry. But I figured I'd give Louise Brooks: Detective (published by NBM, price $15.99) a chance, because it's actual fiction. Louise Brooks was a real person, and she did live in Wichita briefly in the early 1940s (she was born in Cherrydale, Kansas, and her family lived in Wichita) after her acting career fell apart, but Geary imagines that a bored, bright young woman with a theatrical bent might try to solve a murder, and so he gives her one. But is it better than his straight non-fiction?

Geary doesn't get into Brooks's life before 1940 too much - he gives us a brief, prose introduction before launching into the story, but he does a decent job showing us that Brooks might not have been utterly depressed to return to Kansas, but she still wasn't terribly happy about it. She remains level-headed throughout the book, even as she argues with her mother (who did not seem like the most pleasant woman) and fails to make her dance studio a success.

She's wry about her entire experience, as she has seen the glitz of New York and Hollywood but realizes that it was just as dull as life in Wichita can be. Geary doesn't care too much about psychological depths of his characters, so he doesn't really dive into Brooks's inner life, but he does just enough to show that she misses the stage, which leads her to start the dance studio and, after it fails, to seek out a reclusive playwright who lives not far from Wichita and who once sent Brooks a letter in response to hers. We get just enough of her ennui and yearning to believe that she would try to find Thurgood Ellis and that she would poke around the murder that occurs when she does go to see him.

Geary takes us through the plot deliberately, placing Brooks into Wichita life so that later, she's able to piece things together because she's been there a while. She reads about a woman who was killed in a locked house, for which the police have no suspects. She thinks she can figure out that murder just by reading what's printed in the newspaper (like Poe's Dupin, she notes). She meets homeless men who beg for food and possibly a job at her parents' back door - Geary does a decent job in this book reminding us that the Depression is still going on without being too heavy-handed about it. She befriends a clerk, Helen, who works at a music store she frequents to get records for her dance studio. Helen is crucial to the plot, as her fiancé is the victim of the murder that Brooks sets out to solve.

Her journey to visit Ellis and Helen's picnic with her fiancé happen to coincide, and that's how Brooks is drawn into figuring out who killed the man. Geary takes his time putting all the pieces into place, and Brooks is clever enough to figure out what's going on. It's not a perfect murder mystery - I don't want to give too much away, obviously, but trust me - but it's a good one, and it's certainly logical. Geary does a nice job making Brooks cooler than most Kansans might be - the prospect of confronting a murderer doesn't seem to bother her, and it seems like the implication is that her life on stage and screen has prepared her well for predators. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

If you've seen Geary's clean line art before, you'll know that he sticks to his style come hell or high water, and he does so here. I like his art a lot - it has a stark, simplistic quality that tends to belie the excellent line work, as he tends to keep things naturalistic, so he doesn't show off very much. However, he's really detailed, so that whatever book he's working on, we get a wonderful sense of place, and his inking is solid and stolid, so that it adds weight to his drawings and makes everything seem more real. As I noted above, he makes Brooks regard everything very wryly, and his subtle work with her face is a highlight of the book.

She barely quirks her mouth up into a smile, she shifts her eyes to the side when she's considering something, her eyebrows arch just a little when she's being sympathetic - nothing about her is exaggerated, but Geary doesn't need to exaggerate because he's so good at the little things. When she confronts the murderer, she's both a bit triumphant and cautious, never panicking but never being overconfident, either. Geary does good work with all the characters, but his work with Brooks is really nice.

This is a clever little murder mystery, and while I'm not sure why Geary chose Louise Brooks instead of a fictional creation as his protagonist (maybe he was just a fan of Brooks, who seemed like a fun person), it's fun to think that an actual Hollywood actor would return to her hometown and solve a murder. Geary gives us a bit more of a narrative than he usually does, and perhaps because it's fiction, the commentary on the society is a bit more reserved than it usually is in the books by him I've read. It's a slight book, but it's neat. Who doesn't like well-constructed murder mysteries, right?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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