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Green River Killer: A True Detective Story – Review

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I never get very excited when a work of fiction purports to be based on a true story. My love of the weird and mysterious has drawn be toward prolific fiction authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, Colin Wilson, and Richard Laymon. At the same time it also pushes me away from the evening news, filled with mundane, although horrific, car accidents, fires and shootings. I’m not a believer in the saying ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. Look at the breadth of fantastic villains that horror authors and film makers have at their disposal. Mad scientists, ravaging werewolves, thirsty vampires and hungry zombies are the perfect ingredients for a sleepless night. However, there is one villain that often bridges the gap between fiction and reality; the serial killer.

I don’t find myself to be attracted to serial killer stories very often. For the most part, these books and films are cookie cutter tales about the inhumanity of a killer, and a recounting of the slaying of many helpless victims. It seems obvious that companies and producers are simply trying to cash in on someone’s notorious reputation. The reality factor of these stories, the reality with real victims and their real families, causes me to have trouble seeing the entertainment value of these pursuits. I’m not arguing that these stories should not be told, just that they should be told with more purpose and in a different style. It seems like Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case have answered my silent pleas with a graphic novel from Dark Horse, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story.

Gary Leon Ridgway was dubbed the Green River Killer after killing numerous women during the 80’s and 90’s, and leaving the bodies of his first five victims in the Green River (Washington state). In 2001 Ridgway was arrested, and as the result of a plea bargain, attempted to avoid the death penalty by providing police with the location of more of his victims, who were still listed as ‘missing’. Green River Killer focuses on the 188 days that detectives spent interviewing Ridgway, as the result of the plea bargain. It is the story of Gary Ridgway, his sorrowfully many victims, and the police officer who lived the case for twenty years, Tom Jensen.

The author, Jeff Jensen (Detective Tom Jensen’s son), mixes past and present in a twisting narrative that can be confusing at times, but for the large part manages to enthrall the reader. I’m living proof, I read the novel in one sitting. Also, when confusion does set in, it’s easy enough to flip back a page or two and sort out what period of time it is. Jeff Jensen unfolds the horrific story in a methodical fashion, giving the reader only a sliver of information at a time. The reader is made aware at the beginning of the story that Ridgway has been caught, so they do not feel the danger of a serial killer on the loose, however they will likely still experience a feeling of dread, as his crimes will inevitably be unveiled.

The artist, Jonathan Case, creates an appropriately gloomy atmosphere with black-and-white ‘less is more’ panels. I feel the need to commend Case on his transitional drawings of characters throughout their lives. Youthful characters turn into aged men and women in front of the reader’s eyes, in some of the most believable aging possible in a graphic novel.

Finally, the thing that impressed me most about Green River Killer was the focus by Jensen on the human aspect of the story. As I have already mentioned, so many times ‘true crime’ stories and movies focus on the lack of humanity in the killer and make them the central character. In Green River Killer, Ridgway feels human at times, but without a doubt we can also see the monster within, however the central character is not Ridgway, but Case’s father, Detective Tom Jensen. Throughout the story we get to know the likeable but hard-nosed Jensen. At the end, the focus is on the humanity of detective Jensen as he suffers through the case, the shortened lives and lost potential of the victims, and not on the monster, who serves as an effectively horrifying plot device, but deserves none of our lasting attention whatsoever.

Green River Killer is the right way to tell stories about lost life that are heavily based in reality. A must read.

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2 comments on “Green River Killer: A True Detective Story – Review

  1. Thanks for clarifying something I’ve often wondered about. Most reality based accounts of horrific crimes just perpetuate the horror while pretending to be about Truth. Yet the most moving holocaust story I ever read was Art Spiegelman’s Maus. There is right way to tell real-life horror stories as you say. Maybe the graphic novel format fulfills Aristotle’s dictum that tragedy needs to constructed so as to provide catharsis.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment and sorry for my delay in replying. The Toronto After Dark Film Festival was my life for the past little while.

      Great example with Maus!

      Those accounts of crimes that you say perpetuate horror while pretending to be about truth are really one of my pet peeves. If someone has made a distasteful work based on reality, they should own up to it and not pretend that there is something deep and thoughtful hidden beneath, or that they are simply relating real life events.

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