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Review time! with Liar’s Kiss

Oh, you wacky noir comics! How can I stay away?

Top Shelf, your purveyor of all kinds of classy comics, has a new hard-boiled crime comic out called Liar’s Kiss, which is written by Eric Skillman and drawn by Jhomar Soriano. It will cost you $14.95, or probably less from some of those disreputable Internet book stores. You wouldn’t patronize those places, would you?

As you might know, I love me some hard-boiled noir crime comics, so of course I was going to get this sucker! But I don’t love all the hard-boiled noir crime comics I get, so it’s not like I’ll just this a pass, right? Well, luckily for me, I enjoyed this quite a bit. It’s a clever mystery, and I honestly didn’t see the end coming (of course, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m really not that bright, so others might figure this out far before the end). In fact, the way the killer is revealed is the only thing I didn’t enjoy about the book, unfortunately. But we’ll get to that!

The story begins with a nice set-up. Private investigator Nick Archer is taking pictures of a hot young lady, as his client, a multi-millionaire named John Kincaid who’s married to said hot young lady, doesn’t trust her. So Nick is snapping away, showing the woman not doing anything untoward … until she catches Nick in the act, when we learn that they are, in fact, fucking. Nick and Abbey (the woman) have changed the clocks so that the pictures Nick takes show her sitting at home all night, and then they go back to his office to bang. Unfortunately, in the morning, Nick gets a call from Abbey, who has found her husband shot dead. Oh dear.

Of course, Abbey is the prime suspect, even though Nick knows she didn’t kill her husband. Meanwhile, the acting head of the husband’s business, Jane Wilcox, doesn’t seem inclined to give Abbey a break, because she doesn’t want Abbey taking over. Then the police get another suspect – Harold Diaz, who ran an art gallery for Kincaid, and one night a burglar broke in and killed a guard before being killed himself. The police suspected that Kincaid orchestrated it as an insurance fraud, but they couldn’t pin anything on him, so Diaz took the fall. Now he’s out of prison and possibly looking for revenge. There’s no end to the suspects!

Skillman does a good job setting up the story and with the characters, especially Nick, who’s a terrible private eye and knows it. He tells the cops that he usually just takes pictures, so he’s completely out of his depth, especially when events start spiralling out of control. The pictures he took of Abbey show that she’s at home right before the murder … even though she moved the clock’s hands to show that while she went off to canoodle with Nick. So, of course, Nick’s assistant had already mailed the pictures to Kincaid’s office, where they end up in the hands of Jane Wilcox. It turns out that Wilcox has a personal interest in the case, as well, as she and Harold Diaz were an item before Diaz went to prison. She would be the last person Nick would want to have the photographs, but of course, that’s where they end up – in her office. But can Nick get them back before she looks at them?

It’s a nice, twisty tale, as you can tell from this brief summary. Characterization isn’t paramount in noir crime fiction, but Skillman does a decent job with the people in the book, enough so that we certainly understand why they do all these things. Soriano is a good partner in the book, because he has two styles that mesh well with both the storytelling that Skillman is doing and each other. In the present, he uses thin lines, jagged edges, and lots of blacks – it’s a very noir comic in that regard. Despite the book’s 1940s vibe (the golden age of noir, after all), Soriano makes sure that the characters are modern. When he draws the flashbacks, he softens his line, smooths the rough edges, and uses more grayscales, giving the flashbacks a definite “long ago” kind of look (even if one of them is just Abbey telling Nick what happened the night her husband was killed, which was only some hours before the account). It’s a very effective use of contrasts, and when Soriano draws the last chapter, which is almost all in flashback, it’s a good juxtaposition to the rest of the book.

However, the final chapter is where the book falls apart a bit. I’m not going to get into specifics because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say I don’t have any problem with the answer to the mystery – it works, it makes sense, and it fits with everything that’s come before. My problem is the way Skillman decides to reveal everything. The final chapter is basically a confession (and that’s all I’m going to write about that!), and it feels like Skillman had run out of ways to reveal things and simply dropped an infodump on us. I think I know why he did what he did, and the final pages of the book are very effective, but it still feels strange that the book, which is so plot-driven until the final chapter, with several clues planted well in the narrative, would suddenly grind to a halt while we read what happened. I know that murder mysteries often end with the detective gathering everyone in the room, recounting the events, and then pointing out the killer, but this isn’t quite like that. That’s why I don’t want to give too much away. It’s certainly not enough to make me dislike the comic, but the momentum Skillman had built up as things got more and more out-of-control suddenly screeches to a halt, and I was just a bit disappointed in that. Perhaps you won’t be!

Despite that, Liar’s Kiss is a good comic. Yes, I’m predisposed to like hard-boiled noir crime comics, but Skillman does a nice job with the story, and Soriano is a fine artist to draw it. Even with the strange ending, it fits together nicely, and I always appreciate a clever mystery. Give this a try if you like those things!

One Comment

I read this a couple of months back and found it entertaining but not quite exceptional. I like the reveal at the end, but I figured out half of it (not the murderer precisely, but what his relationship to the victim was) within the first few chapters. I imagine it must be pretty tough to avoid doing this, but I felt Skillman telegraphed it a bit by having the characters bring up a really obvious lead and then dismiss it right away as a dead end. Always kind of a red flag, I think.

I ponder this a lot, but it must be hard as hell to write a mystery straight for modern audiences – in other words, no meta ending, the murderer appears in the regular cast of characters, etc. I mean, you have to have “obvious” suspects in the mix to throw the reader, but then, does any jaded reader today honestly believe the killer will end up being the exwife with the grudge? Now I’m not especially savvy, and I haven’t followed too many whodunit stories, but I generally feel it’s pretty easy to narrow it down to a couple of suspects taking a meta approach, in the sense that you know this suspect can’t be the murderer because the text has paid too much attention to him, and that this woman can’t be the murderer because she’s openly characterized as crazy and violent. Would it be better to read a mystery where the murderer was the obvious suspect all along? Certainly, you would lose out on the “aha!” revelation of overlooked clues implicating the killer, but as a reveal, it’s truer to life and I would argue genuinely more surprising to the normal reader of this type of fiction, namely a person who’s expecting the unexpected.

I feel like there’s a larger point in there about genre fiction in general (for example, would a superhero death have more impact if the hero was killed by some dude in a normal fight, rather than in a big heroic sacrifice?), but it’s late and I probably should get to bed.

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