With his ongoing Treasuries of Victorian and Twentieth Century Murders, comics lit artist Rick Geary continues his examination of murder most foulest. This time, he takes us to 1922 New Brunswick, New Jersey where the Reverend Edward W. Hall and a married member of his church choir, Eleanor Mills, were found murdered on the town’s local trysting spot. Lovers’ Lane: The Hall-Mills Mystery (NBM/ComicsLit) examines this still unsolved case, its impact on a prosperous all-American community and the unsuccessful attempt four years later at prosecuting the victims’ spouses and extended family.
The case is rife with false starts, unreliable witnesses, and flagrant instances of police ineptness: when word of the found bodies reached the townsfolk, for instance, a crowd of spectators was allowed to wander around the crime scene, trampling the dirt around the body site, fondling a calling card found propped against the dead reverend’s shoe. The primary self-proclaimed “witness” to the murderer proves to be an area eccentric with a “poor sense of veracity,” according to her neighbors. The victims themselves had been much talked about: the affair between the Episcopalian minister and the choir soprano was an open secret in the community, even if Hall’s moneyed wife Frances refused to openly acknowledge it. Both bodies were shot, though the choir member had an additional significant wound–an ear-to-ear throat cut that was covered up by a scarf. Where the reverend had been shot once, Mrs. Mills had been shot three times.
Though the case’s prime suspects would appear to be obvious ones, both of the victims’ spouses proved hard to pin for the crime. One intriguing possibility bandied about at the time was that the Ku Klux Klan–which was known at the time, Geary notes, “to focus its hatred upon adulterous couples”–might have its hands in the slayings. This theory was quickly disavowed by the prosecution, however. Another possibility is that the killings were done at the hands of another church lady smitten by the reverend (during his funeral, the bulk of the attendees were women), though no clear candidate from that large pool was apparently identified.
Geary’s art, as par for this series, is finely detailed and as wittily detached as his narrative voice–when one of the suspects’ alibis is that he was out having dinner with friends, for instance, we’re treated to a ceiling’s eye view of that repast with the focus on the meal, not the diners. Geary aims his investigation into early twentieth century America with the eyes of an intrigued and empathetic outsider. While his visual take on all the parties involved broach caricature, it’s never vicious caricature. His ink and line work remain unparalleled, particularly in the book’s visual imaginings of different murder scenarios being put forth.
If the small-town murders described in Lover’s Lane don’t have the splashiness of other books in the series (Jack the Ripper, The Borden Tragedy, The Murder of Abraham Lincoln) it’s still a strong addition to Geary’s graphic library of dark deeds. Highly recommended, as usual.