I'm pretty much a snob when it comes to true-crime stories. I want something vivid — but I also don't want eight pages of shocking photos or a garish cover featuring a mugshot of some dude who needs a sandwich, a shave and a hug.
I want my tales of real-life mayhem to be well-researched and with the weight of history behind them — but also move with the speed of a movie.
Which is why I love it when crime stories are told in graphic-novel form. Here are three of my favorites.
Eliot "Untouchable" Ness famously tangled with one of history's greatest villains — Alphonse "Scarface" Capone. And then he went off to Cleveland and ended up hunting someone even worse: that city's notorious "Torso Killer." In Torso, Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko make stunning use of newspaper clippings, crime scene snaps and period photography, making it seem less a traditional comic book and more like a great flick that somehow ended up on paper instead of celluloid. And while the creators supply their own best-guess ending — the killer was never caught — you can tell they breathed in endless gallons of microfiche copier ink to absorb every grisly little detail.
For a decade now, Rick Geary has been serving up delightfully grizzly novels, tackling such infamous cases as the Lizzie Borden murders, Jack the Ripper and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. But my favorite is Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans, about a now-obscure maniac who roamed the streets of 1918-1919 New Orleans and liked to chop up his victims with a you-know-what. Geary walks us through each murder in spare, sober detail, and saves a nasty little jazz-fueled twist (which I refuse to ruin for you) right in the middle of the book. This killer's identity was never revealed, and the puzzling questions Geary asks at the conclusion will chill you as much as the gory murders.
Is it strange to call a graphic novel about a serial killer both gruesome and heartwarming? Jeff Jensen's story of the hunt for the Green River Killer also happens to be a tender meditation on his own father, Detective Tom Jensen, who led the task force charged with taking down the man suspected of slaying at least 48 women since 1982. But this is not a whodunit: Early on in the book, Jensen has a suspect in custody. As the accused walks Jensen through his crimes, we're whipped back and forth in time to see the impact on not only the victims' loved ones (there's a scene on a front porch that will break your heart) but Jensen himself. I never thought I'd say this about a true-crime story, but I finished Green River Killer feeling strangely gutted and ... uplifted.
With true crime and comics, the old cliche is true: A single image can be more expressive than 1,000 words of prose. It makes me wish that writers would bring along an artist the next time they step into a blood-splattered crime scene or a dusty newspaper morgue.
Duane Swierczynski's latest novel is Hell & Gone, and he has written comics for Marvel and DC.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.