Twenty-seven years ago, in a sleepy outback town, Lee Duncan was savagely murdered. Everyone knows who did it – her husband Greg.
For decades, he’s been a wanted man. But when his brother makes a deathbed confession to the killing, Greg has to return to his hometown and face the people who have always believed him to be a murderer.
This is a short graphic novel – 66 pages – and the narrative is similarly brief. There’s a lot of hinted-at backstory and such, which does extend the effective length/complexity, but if this was prose, it would be a short story. It could have stood to be longer, to be honest, as trying to fit all the different plot strands and characters into such a small space results in a somewhat jerky narrative.
It’s Australian noir, which I rather like as an aesthetic – you get the wide open spaces filled with inwards-looking people, and summer in small-town Australia is a relatively novel setting, compared to mean Chicago streets. This is a book that manages to (almost always) eschew the pathetic fallacy, managing a menacing tone despite the sun-drenched environment. The one scene in which the weather does mirror the action doesn’t feel forced.
Philippe Berthet’s art is definitely a high-point, giving a strong sense of the setting. The action is clear throughout as well; a lot of graphic novels struggle to get across the key points in a scene, but A Hell of an Innocent‘s style is consistently clear. The character design is weaker than both motion and setting; as an artist, Berthet does have something of a tendency towards grotesqueries, with many characters having exaggerated ugliness for no real reason – the major characters are bland but the minor ones are almost caricatures.
Although the key event in the plot is murder, infidelity is actually a more consistent motif. Sex is legitimately part of the narrative, but the narrative itself is gratuitous, focused at least as much on titillation as it is on its supposed main ideas. The murder victim (appearing in both flashbacks and hallucinations) is endlessly objectified and over-sexed in a way that obscures rather than supports the story. I didn’t need all the detail, and the infidelity would have had the same plot-impact with far fewer participants.
This is a book that pitches itself as focused on guilt and secrecy, exploring how people and places respond to deception and revelation in turn. It’s a strong concept that I would have liked to see developed further, but it’s constantly being overshadowed. Pulling back on the level of detail, or even simplifying the sexual politics of the story, would have allowed much more time to focus on the ideas that the book is meant to be about.
The prose is unfortunately stilted, trying but failing to capture that distinctive noir tone; at points, the dialogue is so focused on its own cleverness that it’s a little tricky to work out what is supposed to be going on. Raymond Chandler manages to get away with the larger-than-life characters and the arch quips because it’s accompanied by a blunt, almost matter-of-fact narrative; you can’t combine the same tone with ostentation without it falling flat.
Overall, A Hell of an Innocent is a book with some interesting ideas and some promises that are unfortunately not lived up to. The seeds of an arresting and thought-provoking graphic novel are all present, but each separate element is let down by the both the author’s and illustrator’s self-indulgence, in art and prose and plotting. With more severe editing and a tighter focus, this book would have been much more affecting.
I received a copy of this book through Netgalley. I don’t believe this has affected my impartiality, but it seems more honest to mention it than not.