Today the BBAW suggested daily topic is:
We encourage you to be creative with this! Please choose one or two questions to answer or try to answer all the questions in five words or less. Or choose a picture to answer a question! Brevity is the goal of today!
We chose to answer only one question:
Q: Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?
Ana and Thea: HELL YES and that would be His Holy Awesomeness, Neil Gaiman.
We find that there is really only one word that can possibly describe how awesome he is and that word is: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Thea: Or “Ineffable.” You know, in the spirit of Good Omens.)
And, friends, this about as brief as it’s going to get. In part to celebrate making it on the shortlist for Best Graphic Novel Blog, we will take this meme opportunity to turn today into a Neil Gaiman Spotlight, and offer a joint review of Murder Mysteries. Here goes…
Title: Murder Mysteries
Author: Neil Gaiman (Writer) and P. Craig Russell (Illustrator)
Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Publisher: Dark Horse
Publishing Date: June 2002
Hardcover: 64 Pages
Stand alone or series: This graphic novel is actually an adaptation of a short story by Neil Gaiman in his Angels and Visitations and Smoke and Mirrors anthologies, of the same title. It was also adapted earlier into a radio drama – narrated by none other than Michael Emerson (aka Benjamin “Bug-eyed Bastard” Linus, from LOST).
Why did we read the book: Because it’s Neil Gaiman.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Constructing and maintaining all of heaven and earth is an immense task, which God has divided up amongst the various ranks and stations of angels. As with any such huge effort, there are bound to be casualties. This unique passion play sheds light on the hands behind creation, as well as one lonely man in Los Angeles who gets to hear the whole story of a most unspeakable crime: a murder in paradise!
Ana: Murder Mysteries was first published as a short story in the Smoke and Mirrors anthology which I read and reviewed last year. I loved the anthology as a whole but Murder Mysteries was my favourite story. As soon as I finished reading it, I found out that it had made into a Graphic Novel and I immediately bought it but haven’t read it until now. What can say about it? It works even better in Graphic Novel format with the added visual to a most powerful story. This is not only a very good, traditional whodunit but also with gravitas and age-old discussion of Free Will versus Determination. Murder Mysteries stays with the reader long after you finish reading it (and Neil Gaiman is a freaking genius).
Thea: After Ana read Smoke and Mirrors for our Neil Gaiman Week last year and was drooling over the graphic novel adaptation of “Murder Mysteries,” I, of course, has to have it too. And so, I bought the hardcover. It languished on my TBR for a very long time, but finally we found the perfect opportunity to do a joint review. I started Murder Mysteries and wasn’t expecting too much – I’ll be honest. Neil Gaiman is a master (clearly) and one of my favorite authors, but I’m not completely stoked by P. Craig Russell’s art (sorry!), and at a slim 65 pages, I wasn’t expecting as much from this stand alone book. Well, I was wrong. Murder Mysteries is a deceptively deep story. About the first murder in the creation of the universe, this book tackles a lot of old questions (as Ana says, Fate vs. Free Will), and sets the stage for the inevitable battle to come. It also has a somewhat open-for-interpretation ending, which is fantastic. This is Gaiman at his classic best.
On the Plot:
Ana: A young man recounts his time in LA ten years ago, when his flight to London kept being delayed for almost a week. On the last night before returning to London, he meets Tink, a beautiful woman he remembers from years ago in London, with whom he had a fling with. They have a brief sexual encounter and although he can’t remember part of the night after that, he knows that he left her place and unable to sleep, he goes for a walk. He sits down on a bench for a smoke when a homeless man sits next to him. In exchange for a cigarette, the homeless man tells him a story: a story that starts with the Word. In the beginning of times when Angels were helping the Creation, we learn that the Angel Raguel, the Vengeance of the Lord is awakened to investigate the first-ever murder.
Murder Mysteries is one of my favourite stories by Neil Gaiman – it is everything that he can be, condensed in less than 60 pages. Just like with The Sandman, everything within Murder Mysteries matters – when you reach the end, you realise how all and every single information (relayed here in panels) is relevant.
The storytelling is effective and there are two stories being told at the same time, although you think one of them does not matter: it is a story within a story and the title says everything you need to know: it is in the plural, isn’t it? The main whodunit is expertly handled by the Angel of Vengeance, who acts like a Poirot-like figure, investigating the crime. But it is the very nature of the crime that makes this book so freaking brilliant – and where Neil Gaiman’s imaginative signature comes into play: because we are talking about the first crime EVER, committed in Paradise at a time where human beings did not even exist and the Angels were busy thinking about concepts such as “love” or “hate” . There is a thread of theology in the story as Gaiman once again, brings Lucifer and his role in the Creation to the forefront. It is all part of the story, of both stories.
With regards to the illustrations: I like the added visual to a story I already loved but I am not crazy about the artwork – I think it lacks something MORE as though the figures are way too simplistic for such a complex story.
Thea: Murder Mysteries tells the story of the first death in the creation of the universe; it’s the original murder mystery (for which the book is titled). Who killed Carasel? And for what reason? This is the sole purpose of Raguel, or Vengeance – to discover the facts behind the death of an immortal, whether it was self-inflicted or murder. And, as his name suggests, to exact the Lord’s Vengeance upon the perpetrator.
Plot-wise, Murder Mysteries seems straightforward – the heart of the story is the homeless man (who claims to be Vengeance) and his tale to the narrator of the book, as payment for a cigarette and matchbook. The beginning of the book, as the narrator recounts his short layover in Los Angeles years back, seems almost negligible; an unimportant detail to get to the meat and potatoes of the book. At least, that’s how I saw it, initially. Of course, nothing in a Neil Gaiman book is a throwaway – everything has significance, from the location of the story (my hometown and aptly set City of Angels), to the serpentine shape of freeways, to the image of a child’s painting, to the payment for a cigarette. The parallel stories of the nameless bespectacled traveller to the angel’s tale overlap beautifully, and by the end of the book, everything comes together and makes perfect sense. As always, I find myself awed by Neil Gaiman’s skill at telling stories – even a seemingly simple story, such as this one.
Though I’m not a huge fan of P. Craig Russell’s art here (I wasn’t crazy on his interpretation of Coraline either – I much prefer Dave McKean’s print-like surreal inks in the prose novel), I cannot deny that the images he uses to tell the story, from the city of Heaven to Los Angeles itself, are thoughtful and compliment the tale perfectly.
Then, of course, there’s the thematic concept of fate versus free will. It is executed beautifully in the book, and raises some interesting questions….but more on that later.
On The Characters:
Thea: There are two main characters to this dual story – the nameless narrator, and the angel Raguel, or Vengeance. We don’t know much about the nameless narrator initially…not until the end of the book do things become clear. But he exudes a sense of discomforting detachment (reinforced again by Mr. Russell’s decision to give him symbolic glinting, reflective glasses). Raguel, on the other hand, is nothing but forthrightness. He has been created for one purpose and one purpose only – as a tool of his master, to exact vengeance on those who deserve it…but is it that simple? Raguel shares thoughts of his own which challenge the determination angle, and seems to be able to make his own way (or rather, he is permitted to find his own way). This leads to more theological pondering, but, again, more on that later.
The other standout character, as Ana will most assuredly gush about, is Lucifer – the Authority’s second in command. If you’ve read the Sandman books, you will be familiar with Lucifer and his role in Neil Gaiman’s work – and indeed this early invocation of Lucifer seems very close to the Lucifer that Morpheus encounters. There’s something so beautiful and heartbreaking about Lucifer, especially in this portrayal. His loyalty, his tears, his beginning to question things…it’s damn near flawless. Really good stuff.
Ana: Ah, Lucifer Morningstar. My heart bleeds for you every time Neil Gaiman writes you. The author manages to portray Lucifer as a tragic figure instead of a pure evil one. In Murder Mysteries, his role, his demeanour are heartbreaking, because he dares. He questions, he thinks about the box and because of that, he has a role to play in the Creation – a role that has not being chosen by him, but which is solely based on his very own personality. The very principle of Free Will x Fate clashes in Lucifer: his Free Will is the very thing that condemns him to his Fate. It is a sad and beautiful thing. In here as in The Sandman, I find myself having sympathy for the devil above any other character.
Murder Mysteries is Lucifer’s story – he is at the centre of it all. That makes all the other characters pale in comparison. That’s my story and I will stick to it.
Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:
Ana: Murder Mysteries is one the best Neil Gaiman stories I’ve ever read and it’s sheer brilliance for all its depth and intensity. This book can be profoundly disturbing and it provokes the reader to think. The ending is open for interpretation and the outcome of it comes solely from the reader’s own beliefs and how they clash (or not) with what they read. For such a small story it sure does packs a punch but then again, that’s Neil Gaiman for you.
Thea: Murder Mysteries isn’t the best Neil Gaiman book I’ve ever read, but it is a fantastic standalone comic. I was immersed in it, I was ambushed by its depth and beauty, and I loved it. If you haven’t read anything by Neil Gaiman before and want a quick, fast read to see what he’s all about, Murder Mysteries is a great place to start.
Ana: The moment when Lucifer QUESTIONS the Creator. Awesome stuff.
Thea: Following the classic Poirot-esque method of the Dramatic Parlor Room trope, the ultimate reveal of the murderer – who did it, and why they did it – is fantastic.
Additional Thoughts: On Fate (or Determinism) versus Free Will…
It’s a common enough dilemma, one that has been debated between philosophers and especially in religious connotations throughout history. Heck, it’s even a main theme in one of our all time favorite shows, LOST.
(And yeah, we didn’t include a picture of his holiness Jack, even though he’s our supposed “Man of Science” to Locke’s “Man of Faith”…)
So…with that theme in mind, we have a brief, SPOILERY DISCUSSION of the open ending:
WE REPEAT. SPOILERS BELOW. (To read, highlight the white space)
Thea: The way I interpreted the ending was that the English narrator killed Tink’s flatmate, Tink, and her daughter Susan – and Raguel, the homeless man, absolved him at least temporarily of his sin. My initial reaction was that Vengeance took pity on the man (because he gave him a “gift,” the same one he refused from God) because of how he felt after he smote the Saraquael. It’s a gift only temporarily for the narrator, absolution for only the time of his short life, but i do think he’ll “go down” the elevator later when he dies. (How could he not? Vengeance is the tool during life, but in death i’m sure the big man upstairs won’t be too happy with him, and send him to good ol’ Lucifer. Heck maybe that’s more of God’s cold planning in the book – temporary absolution, then to yank it away for eternity after death). And he can do all this because everything happens according to the big man’s will, right?
I’m not a philosopher and I don’t care for theological doctrine really, but the idea of a world that runs solely according to predetermination sits unwell with me. I like to think that Raguel turned his back on Heaven, but offers choice in his exaction of “vengeance.”
Ana: I interpreted in a very similar way as Thea did. I do think that Raguel , is still the Angel of Vengeance – after all he did not “Fall”. But he does offer the guy a reprieve by granting his forgetfulness until he eventually goes “down” to meet Lucifer. But everybody is still very much playing their roles as stipulated in the Master Plan.
The main thing about the book for me though is this: if the first Murder was committed so that Lucifer Fell according to The plan, then every single murder after that is ALSO according to the Plan. If God is the culprit of the first murder then he is the de facto culprit of every single murder after that – because he knows all, and is everywhere and has this Plan. In that sense, even Raguel’s gift is also according to the Plan. Where there is a master plan engineered by an omniscient and omnipresent being there is absolutely NO possibility of Free Will. And that sucks huge donkey balls. Excuse my French.
Ana: 8 – Excellent – missing out being a 9/10 solely because I am not a fan of the art
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Next in our Neil Gaiman mini-special: come back later today for a chance to win one of two copies of one of our favorite books of 2008, The Graveyard Book!
Reading Next: The Declaration by Gemma Malley