Eddie Campbell’s The Black Diamond Detective Agency

cover, The Black Diamond Detective Agency I suppose we’re all suckers for some things. I tend to love nineteenth-century American life depicted with a gritty realism. I have a soft spot for beautifully executed graphic novels, whether the style is loose and painterly or tight and linear. I’m almost always fascinated by the exploration of a society at the cusp of a new era. Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel The Black Diamond Detective Agency: A Rousing Tale of the Hunt for a Mysterious Train Bomber manages to touch on all the above.

With the recent rise (and demise) of HBO’s Deadwood series, many have become familiar with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency established in 1850, whose activities and logo gave rise to the term “private eye.” The Black Diamond Detective Agency, a fictional entity in the Pinkerton mould, has been engaged to track down the assumed instigator of a tragic and fatal bombing of a Midwestern train. Hero/antihero John Hardin is trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers as he flees the Agency’s detectives and attempts to unravel the mystery of who framed him for such a terrible act, and why. The evidence at the scene seems to point incontrovertibly his direction. The Black Diamond agents involved wonder why Hardin, a man with a criminal past and his name clearly associated with boxes of explosive used for the bombing, crawled from the wreckage of the fateful blast to drag so many others to safety before fleeing the scene of his alleged crime.

We follow the unraveling mystery, alternating between Hardin’s perspective and that of agents on his trail. The clever, sometimes humorous portrayal of nascent nineteenth-century police forensics and detective posturing and technique is adroitly inserted into action and dialog. Perhaps unfortunately, some action gets diluted by the meandering, oft confusing backstory of troubled romance and even more troubled childhood. Flashbacks to the sad orphanage life led by the younger Hardin and his cohort seem at times to suck coherence from the plot rather than add to it. For some, this may detract from the overall experience of the work. Others may find the interweaving introspective details add to the softness and flow of what is, for the most part, an intriguing journey.

Overall I quite liked The Black Diamond Detective Agency. The palette Campbell uses is soft, almost faded around the edges, reminiscent of an old sepia photograph or the yellowed parchment of worn maps. The occasional clarity and sharpness of hard black and jarring red effectively illustrate violence, emotional and physical. The looseness of line and blurry edges help soften the sharp delineation of time and space: between childhood and adulthood, between love and hate, between good men and bad, between innocence and guilt. This is not a clear-cut action story. It is not a clear-cut romance. In those ways it departs from what is usually thought of as standard “comic book” tradition, while, not unparadoxically, simultaneously drawing heavily from the same. Nice work.

(First Second, 2007)

Camille Alexa

Camille Alexa is the alter ego of another odd-lit writer who also loves warm bread, big dogs, serial commas, and post-apocalyptic love stories. Her work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Ellery Queen's & Alfred Hithcock's Mystery Magazines, and numerous anthologies such as Machine of Death and The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. Her collection of short stories, PUSH OF THE SKY, received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, was shortlisted for the Endeavor Award, and was an official reading selection of Portland's Powell's Books Science Fiction Book Club.

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