It’s a familiar scene: a gorgeous dame walks into the office of a private detective, asking for help. Her sister Julie is missing, vanished from a windowless bathroom with a locked door. Mercer, the PI, is hesitant to take the case at first. After all, Julie is his ex and she’s supposed to be getting married in a few days. He assumes the bride just got cold feet, but her sister thinks it’s something else and she convinces Mercer to take the case. The investigation turns up a bevy of suspects: Julie’s fiancée, a gambler whose motive is tied to whether or not he needed money from the marriage; a jazz trumpet player nicknamed “Killer,” with whom Julie had an affair; a mobster that Julie or her fiancée might have owed money to; and possibly a member of Julie’s own family. In typical noir fashion, nothing is as it seems, and Mercer has to keep his wits sharp if he wants to solve the case without becoming the next victim.
If something about this plotline seems familiar, it’s because it’s mimicking every noir story you’ve ever seen or read. While that’s not necessarily a problem, particularly if you like the genre, I found that You Have Killed Me was an homage to the world of noir without doing anything new. It’s a solid addition to the world of crime fiction; there were plenty of suspects and red herrings to keep my interest, but it also adhered to tropes of the genre so well that the twist ending was not a twist at all. As a lifelong mystery fan, I’ve ceased to expect a mind blowing surprise from every mystery that I read (because there are only so many twists and plot ideas out there), so predicting the ending didn’t ruin the reading experience for me. Hand this one to fans of this duo’s other work (like Lady Killer) or other period crime fiction (like Ed Brubaker’s Criminal or The Fade Out).
The time period of You Have Killed Me (somewhere in the late 1930s/early 1940s) is important to mention, because aspects of this book that would usually frustrate me are a regular part of noir set in this era. For example, the women in this book are essentially either a femme fatale or an innocent woman that Mercer charms for information. The way that Mercer turns on the charm when it suits him also had me rolling my eyes, but I understood that these elements were in place (and possibly exaggerated) because they are a key part of classic noir, and as such, I was able to overlook the gender stereotypes because I understood the purpose they served in this particular book.
I was already a fan of Joëlle Jones’ art before starting You Have Killed Me (her recent work on Batman has been first rate), and I was pleased with how well she adapts her style to the project. While she is capable of creating highly detailed panels when the situation calls for them, most of the panels here are simpler, focusing on the one or two important elements of each panel and scene. This sparse style, combined with presenting the entire book in black and white, works well to set the overall mood. It’s easy to feel like you’re watching an old movie as you read this, which is exactly as it should be when paying homage to the noir genre. I also adored Jones’ character designs; Mercer is a quintessential rough-and-tumble PI (with features reminiscent of actors like Cary Grant), and the women are all a perfect combination of sultry and feminine, to the point that you can’t quite tell if they are innocent or not.
Jamie S. Rich captures the snappy dialogue of the era perfectly, and I can easily hear Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade for all of Mercer’s speech. Character dialogue makes up most of the text in this book, with Mercer’s narration boxes filling in the gaps and expounding on his thoughts and actions. The dialogue is a lot of quick back-and-forth and flows well, working to drive the story forward. The one element of the story that I wanted more from was character development; though I know the focus was the mystery, I still wanted a bit more from each character, and I found the supporting cast to be closer to flat archetypes than fully-formed characters.
You Have Killed Me is “suggested for mature audiences” by publisher Oni Press, but it’s far tamer than most mature comics. Though the book contains a proliferation of smoking, drinking, and guns, it’s nothing that readers wouldn’t also find on a prime time TV drama. Mercer is involved in several fistfights throughout the book, as well as a couple of suggestive scenes (one with a waitress in a skimpy dress that’s all innuendo, and another with a woman in a negligee that reveals less than most swimsuits). The most red-flag moments in the book are a couple of panels depicting murder victims; in one, a man has been stabbed in the side and hanged, and in another, a man is dead in a chair with a knife in his chest. Though both panels are a bit shocking, the colorless art takes away from the carnage factor by making the blood more shadowy than gory. I would feel comfortable recommending this book to mystery-loving teens as well as adults, as long as I knew that the few content flags wouldn’t be an issue.
You Have Killed Me
By Jamie S. Rich
Art by Joëlle Jones
Oni Press, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Suggested for Mature Audiences (17+)