Green River Killer: A True Detective Story
They’re billing Green River Killer as a “true-crime comic”, but that’s misleading. Where this story really shines is in its portrayal of a working police detective frustrated by the length of time it took to catch a Seattle serial killer.
Writer Jeff Jensen is better known as an entertainment reporter, but here, he tells the story of his father Tom, who investigated the Green River Killer in Seattle for twenty years. The GRK, Gary Leon Ridgway, is attributed as “the worst serial killer in U.S. history” for murdering over 48 women. (I hadn’t previously heard of this case, so I’m not sure how much attention it got nationally.) Because of the press around that premise, I was expecting this to be a non-fiction exploration of his crimes, but that’s the wrong attitude to go in with. While there are some details captured here, the book focuses on how he was caught and how he was treated afterwards, not all the murders committed. (There is also an ending disclaimer about how some names and details have been changed and some characters are composites.)
The deaths began in 1982, and there are suggestions that we still don’t know how many are attributable to Ridgway. This isn’t a clean and tidy story, but since it’s inspired by real life, it can’t be. Tom Jensen began working on the case in late 1983 and continued, on and off, until past his retirement in 2002. A deal was cut in 2003 with Ridgway in which he was given life in prison (instead of a death sentence) in return for providing details about the crimes and helping to identify and locate more of his victims. Much of this book covers how difficult that can be when relying on memory and a perhaps non-cooperative participant. It’s only because of Tom’s long history with the case that the investigators are able to make a necessary breakthrough in forcing Ridgway to confront what he’s done.
Jonathan Case (Dear Creature) provides straightforward art in keeping with the journalistic tone. It never gets in the way of the reading, yet it makes numerous scenes of pudgy older men talking non-repetitive. We also see many flashbacks, both to the crimes and to Tom’s family life. The latter is necessary for contrast; although Tom is careful to keep the two pieces of his life very separate, there are moments where they overlap. My favorite aspect was how he managed his feelings by remodeling his house, turning his emotions into hammer hitting nails. In one simple panel, his wife asks, “Bad day?” to which he responds, “I’m going to gut the bathroom,” adding some dark humor to a lengthy struggle.
The underlying elements that trail through the story, especially Tom’s smoking and how various people in his life remark on it, keep the reader involved by making him relatable in spite of his reserved exterior. The smoking comes to indicate Tom’s determination to stick with something in spite of everything else.
Case has done an excellent job with a situation that can be thankless. If we noticed the art more, it wouldn’t be as successful. Often, when reading books of this type, I find myself thinking that it could has been as effective as a prose novel, in cases where the text covered the entire story. That’s not true here, since Case’s art provides necessary context, setting the stage as the author moves the reader back and forwards in time, from the crimes to the latter-day investigation. The visual details — the bare-bones investigative office, the woods where the bodies were found, the men’s facial hair, and so on — tell us important things about what we’re reading.
If you enjoy watching wrap-up-in-an-hour procedurals such as CSI or SVU, you owe it to yourself to read this book, because real police work is a lot more this plodding determination than science magic. The publisher has posted a preview as well as notes by the writer, by the illustrator, from the editor (with a picture of Tom Jensen), and about the evolution of the cover design. (Dark Horse provided a digital review copy.)