Green River Killer
Created by: Jeff Jensen, Jonathan Case
Published by: Dark Horse
ISBN: 1595825606 (Amazon)
In my Baby’s in Black review, I discussed the difficulties that confront non-fictional accounts of historical events. The primary hurdle is reader foreknowledge. If you’re already aware (spoilers!) that Amelia Earhart doesn’t complete her round-the-world flight, that Lee surrenders at the Appomattox Courthouse, that Jesus comes back to life in the end—then all the drama surrounding those events is sucked out of the telling. Reader investment, then, must be engaged in other ways.
Titanic, for instance, couldn’t just be a movie about how a boat sank (since the only reason anyone is aware of the Titanic is because it sank). James Cameron decided to make it a love story set on the backdrop of a sinking boat because everybody would go into it well aware that the boat wouldn’t survive the end credits. The drama then was not in whether the boat would sink but in the romance and survival of its principal couple.
True crime is as much beholden to this rule as any other genre, and in many cases everyone goes into the story knowing the end of the matter. The Ted Bundy story ends either with Bundy getting caught or with his execution. The Unabomber story ends perhaps with the arrest or trial of Theodore Kaczynski. The John Wilkes Booth story ends with Booth dead on a porch at Garrett’s farm. And the Green River Killer was Gary Ridgway and he was discovered and arrested two decades after his first murders. These are known facts, and prior knowledge of them could destroy any sense of anticipation in reading a retelling of the events. Fortunately, author Jeff Jensen has something better up his sleeve.
When one recalls the stale story direction of David Fincher’s film adaptation, Zodiac, which followed the unsolved case of the Zodiac Killer, it becomes doubly apparent how deliciously good The Green River Killer is. Rather than give a rote recountment of events and try to hold onto the mystery of the murderer’s identity for as long as possible, Jensen rather quickly zooms the reader from a chilling introduction to the killer in 1965 to Detective Tom Jensen’s 2003 interrogation of Gary Ridgway, two years after his arrest. Ridgway is introduced as the Green River Killer by page 32. From then and onward, author Jeff Jensen treats the reader to a narrative that hops back and forth across the prior twenty years as Detective Jensen and Ridgway discuss and to some extent relive Ridgeway’s murder of more than fifty women. The tension and drama come in as we discover that the detective (who is the real-life father of Jeff Jensen, the book’s writer) wants to come away from his 188 days interviewing the murderer with a very particular piece of information. What is it and will Tom Jensen’s curiosity be satisfied? Will he and his family survive in the meantime? These are the threads that weave through Green River Killer: A True Detective Story, and watching them resolve is exciting and satisfying.
Serial killers hold an often irrational grasp over the imaginations of the public. When I was a kid growing up in Orange County, the entire community (so far as I could tell) lived in terror of Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker. Even though no one in my town (a small beach community far from the freeway) was a potential victim, we lived on alert, fearing that we could be next. Seattle (at least in Jensen’s book) likewise reacted to the Green River Killer—who only killed prostitutes—with a kind of widespread, irrational panic. Perhaps it’s the loss of faith in a city’s paid protection that sparks fear in a victimized community. Or maybe it’s founded on the sense of helplessness that accompanies the knowledge that there is a serial murderer at large—a killer that the police seem inadequate to the task of detecting, let alone capturing. Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case do an admirable job capturing Seattle’s sense of panic, even if rarely showing any member of the community who isn’t either a detective, a corpse, or a killer.
Jensen does this other interesting thing with Green River Killer: he writes Ridgway as almost sympathetic. Certainly he’s still a creepy sociopath with more victims than perhaps any other American serial killer. But by the time the narrative catches up with him, Ridgway’s just a sad-sack, middle-aged man trying his darnedest to be of assistance to the detectives interviewing him. He’s a little bit bewildered and a little bit vulnerable. And he rarely exudes anything resembling an aura of menace. He timidly jokes with his captors and tries to make friends with them even as he details his murders in order to plea bargain down to a mere lifetime-imprisonment. It’s unnerving once you recognize that you’ve grown comfortable with the character. (That is if you do grow comfortable, of course. I did, but I presume others might not so easily forget how sinister the man is.) This on its own is a huge triumph of the book and one for which Jensen should be proud.
Still, enough about Jeff Jensen and his “words.” I have a crush on Jonathan Case and want to have his art babies. I’m not certain who exactly is responsible for pairing Jensen and Case on this project (Sierra Hahn, maybe?), but the marriage is unblemished. I actually can’t imagine a better artistic direction for depicting these figures and the macabre muck through which they must wade in their quest for Truth. Case’s art is reminiscent of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets-era work, only slightly more polished and employing far less punk-lunacy. His opening salvo of a young Ridgway testing the waters of his mania is devastating and perfect. In reviewing Uzumaki, I wrote how I didn’t believe comics could adequately convey a sense of horror because of the unsurprising way in which panels pace a story. If there was ever a counter-argument, I believe this story segment is it.
This panel of Ridgway is so pregnant with apprehensive malice that a book filled with such moments would be utterly exhausting.
I’m not huge on true crime (though I’ve enjoyed Eric Larsen’s The Devil in the White City—me and 98% of the people who’ve read it!—and Rick Geary’s Treasury of 19th/20th Century Murder) and I rarely see it handled in a way that makes me want to take it up as a regular staple in my reading queue, but I loved Green River Killer. If I run into a few more examples of the genre that are this good, I might just revise my position to: Avid Reader of Good True Crime.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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