Comic review: The Detection Club by Jean Harambat
The Detection Club - Jean Harambat
What is wonderful about The Detection Club is that it is based on a real organisation founded in the 1930s that included some of the most important figures in literary crime fiction. Meeting on a regular basis in London, between them they discussed and formulated theories about writing, and considering the diverse range of authors taking part in this club, you could imagine they might have had a few disagreements. Jean Harambat's delightful graphic novel pulls these real-life figures together in a murder-mystery situation that proves to be as entertaining as you might imagine, but it's also genuinely in the spirit of classic crime fiction.
In Harambat's The Detection Club, G K Chesterton (the real first president of the club), Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, A E W Mason, Baroness Emma Orczy, Ronald Knox and the recently inducted American author John Dickson Carr are gathered to witness what appears to be the crime of the century, something more terrifying than even some of the most notable names in crime fiction could ever imagine. A scientist has created nothing less than a spoiler machine, so to speak; a robot that can deduce and solve any work of crime fiction just from a basic outline.
If you haven't read Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue or Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie then prepare for spoilers in the demonstration given by Professor Roderick Ghyll's latest invention, the crime-solving robot Eric. Invited to his island in Cornwall off the coast of Pentreath, the robot's demonstration invites discussion over dinner about the merits of science, technology, automation and philosophical considerations on whether they enhance or limit human freedom. After dinner there are drinks and a game of billiards and, as they retire to their rooms for the night, a crime will undoubtedly take place. It's one however that doesn't appear doesn't conform to the society's agreed ten commandments for detective fiction.
It's fortunate, perhaps even suspiciously convenient, that there's a robot in the mansion which is programmed to identify the name of the victim's murderer in a matter of seconds from the evidence presented to him. Of course with some of the greatest detective writers of the time in attendance, each with their on theories, they're not going to be satisfied with the deduction of a mere machine. That would go against everything they believe in and particularly their belief that humanity is far more complex than addition of numbers. It requires the application of logic, instinct, intuition, as well as the ability to take into account chance and mishap - things however than don't all necessarily allow for the application of "fair play" in giving a reader the chance to solve the mystery themselves.
Playing to classic conventions then there are any number of potential suspects in The Detection Club. Usually when you've a group of people trapped on an island and a killer among them, you don't need a robot or computer to calculate what happens next, but thankfully Agatha Christie's model of bumping off characters one by one isn't followed here. Since they are all famous crime fiction writers what happens instead is that each presents their own theory according to their own methodologies as to who the killer might be. So rather than just get a traditional detective investigating, you have a whole group with plenty of entertaining and conflicting hypotheses, as well as an interesting philosophical discussion on the subject of crime, murder and writing.
What matters most however is that Jean Harambat's graphic storytelling is absolutely delightful and entertaining. And of course it's a little bit tongue-in-cheek in its consideration of these larger-than-real-life figures and their charming oath not to not place reliance on nor make use of "Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God", by throwing all these features in. It does so in a way however that is amusing and literate with a terrific murder-mystery that is truly in the spirit of classic crime fiction.
The artwork might look a little basic and sketchy but in reality it's perfectly suited to the subject with a classic pulp feel that reminds me a little of the retro stylings of the contemporary American pulp horror artist and cartoonist Richard Sala (Peculia, The Chuckling Whatsit, Black Cat Crossing). The story is well-paced and perfectly balanced, although somewhat unevenly spread across two volumes of 85 pages in Part 1, and 48 pages in Part 2. Since the revelations and resolutions come in the second part however with Volume 1 setting the scene, it actually balances out quite well. Respectful (mostly) to the spirit of the golden age of crime fiction, The Detection Club manages to be an amusing, entertaining, literate and suspenseful crime fiction in its own right.