Neil Gaiman’s short story / radio play Murder Mysteries got the comic book treatment in 2002, adapted by award winning writer Philip Craig Russell. Gaiman wrote this tale during his glory days; he was so good back then it’s easy to imagine his quill sparkling with fairy dust if shaken. Russell had previously adapted the works of Ray Bradbury and Michael Moorcock; in comics he had tackled Batman, Daredevil and Hellboy, among others, so he was well qualified for the task.
Russell handled art duties as well, and while the colouring is that standardised computer colouring that I find mostly uninspired (I mean no disrespect to the colourist, it’s the technique I dislike), the pencil work is solid. Initially I thought it competent but a little sparse, lacking the detail such a profound story required, but on subsequent readings minutiae began to emerge that adds gravitas to the main story, and almost tells a story of its own. The child’s drawings, the distances between characters, the light and dark and the shadows that lie between are there for a reason.
The structure of Murder Mysteries is a frame narrative which can be tricky to get right; anyone who’s ever tried it will understand what I mean. The opening story introduces our narrator, a lonely male in modern day Los Angeles; he’s not a native of the city so he’s a little lost and out of his depth.
After returning from an empty sexual encounter with a woman he barely knows he takes a walk, and settles on a park bench. This bench moment is where the first act ends and the second begins; I say that because reading is like watching a play unfold.
A much older man shares the bench and asks if our narrator wishes to hear a story, a true story...
In the tradition of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the older man begins to tell a tale that he claims to be a part of, and thus he becomes the story once again. The reader also becomes involved in both the listening and the telling; it becomes a triumvirate of cause and effect. Few people manage to get it right but Russell makes it work beautifully, which is doubly amazing as he has such a short space of time in which to do it. The page count is a mere 64 pages.
The old man speaks of a murder, in heaven, the first murder, which forces the angel Lucifer to task Raguel, the angel of vengeance, with unravelling the truth. Raguel now becomes our guide, even though we have changed perspective we are still firmly within the original narrator’s story. The frame narrative I mentioned before begins to take shape. It’s better if I don’t reveal anything more from here on because like the title suggests, it’s a murder mystery, it would be wrong of me to take away the mystery.
It’s never explicitly revealed if the Lucifer in Murder Mysteries is the same Lucifer in Gaiman’s Sandman series (and subsequently Mike Carey’s offshoot); there are enough similarities to suggest it is but also a number of significant differences. Lucifer is a multifaceted tragic character, not merely the evil snake in the tree; think Blake crossed with Milton theologically glued together with romanticism and you’re partway there.
Despite the beautifully stylised images of the heavenly City calling for the reader’s attention, I found Russell’s representation of the real world, the contrasting Los Angeles, to be a lot more interesting, and while both were characterised as a silent but almost sentient character in the story it was the mortal world that had the edge. I would love for it to have been fully painted.
It’s a short work but deceptively deep; it can easily be read in one sitting so the parallels between the two stories should be easy to spot. After the last page has tuned don’t be surprised if you’re left pondering the differences between free will and fate, regardless of your beliefs, or lack of. Ultimately, Murder Mysteries is a compelling, complex work that gives back as much as you invest in it. Essential reading for Gaiman fans and highly recommended for everyone else.
Note: If you want to read the original prose story it can be found in Gaiman’s Angels and Visitations (1993) and Smoke and Mirrors (1998) anthologies.