GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: The Black Diamond Detective Agency
The Black Diamond Detective Agency is a bit of an anomaly for Eddie Campbell – it’s a book he wrote and illustrated alone that nevertheless is not concerned with stories or storytelling in any way. Campbell’s probably best-known for illustrating From Hell from Alan Moore’s famously copious scripts, but most of his work has been writing and drawing his own stories, sometimes with help from a loose band of local Australian cartoonists.
His two long-running sequences are both deeply about story: Bacchus consists of the tales of the few remaining Greek gods in the modern world, and contains many tales-within-tales, retold stories, and other storytelling conceits. The “Alec MacGarry” stories are even more entwined with stories, since they’re Campbell’s thinly-veiled autobiography about his own life as a comics creator, and are, at their heart, about the process of creating art and stories.
So it’s a bit odd to find that Black Diamond is a conventional detective story – a murder mystery, to be precise – set at the turn of the 20th century in the American Midwest. (That last is also surprising since Campbell is a Scot long resident in Australia – middle America isn’t his part of the world at all.) The story begins with a mysterious man in Lebanon, Missouri witnessing the explosion of a train during a demonstration and then helping to pull the wounded from the wreckage. He’s soon arrested and questioned, since the boxes of nitro used to blow up the train have his name on them.
It gets more complicated from there, but the focus is on that man of several names and on the investigation run by the Black Diamond Agency (which stands in for the real-life Pinkertons) of the explosion and related events. And, showing its origin as a screenplay, there’s a Big Secret at the end, which will be familiar to many – we’ve seen a story much like this many times before.
I’m not entirely sure why this book is called The Black Diamond Detective Agency – the agency is present throughout the book, and is important, but not really central. And calling a book by that title leads a reader to expect some kind of procedural story – how the agency carries out its day-to-day investigative business – which is not what this story is at all. Black Diamond is a fairly standard historical thriller, with the requisite secret machinations behind the scenes and a hero with a troubled, confused past who must battle his own demons and the suspicions of those around him to win through in the end. It’s the kind of book that feels like it should have been called The Case of the Something-Or-Other.
The art is more interesting – Campbell has been writing a series of posts on his blog about the effects he generated in this book through the use of different kinds of paper, and the art has an appealing, just slightly impressionistic feel. Campbell’s loose line did sometimes make it difficult for me to keep track of characters, though, especially with a lot of men in somber suits and facial hair. Other than that, the art is dynamic and carries the action well, with panels varying in size and position from tight grids to loose frameworks, depending on the scene.
All in all, this is a bit of a disappointment after Campbell’s amazing last book, The Fate of the Artist, but it might be of interest to readers who haven’t picked up Campbell’s work before, especially if they enjoy historical thrillers and detective stories. For myself, though, I’ll be hoping for a return to “Alec” or perhaps the completion of his history of humor.
The Black Diamond Detective Agency
Eddie Campbell, from a screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell
First Second, 2007, $16.95