It’s such a crazy cool set up that you wouldn’t believe it — if it wasn’t true.
In the 1930s, a group of detective writers in Great Britain formed a social club with an on-going series of dinners. Remarkably, the group survives to this day.
You can read about it on Wikipedia if you like, but it’s real. Get a load of this partial list of early members: Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Baroness Emma Orczy, Hugh Walpole, and Jessie Rickard.
I’m not a student of British mystery/detective fiction of the 1930s or anything, but even I recognize enough names to know that this was a group of heavy hitters. Most modern novelists would kill to be in such a room when the Detection Club gathered for a meeting.
And given the way the book’s writer, Jean Harambat, presents them, I think everyone would love to be walking amidst such a colorful and expressive group of characters. They seem like a fun, if slightly cantankerous, group.
This two part series is about the early club, and one shared adventure they have when a super rich gentleman invites them all to his private island for a meeting.
Riddle Me This, Credits
Artist: Jean Harambat
Colorist: Jean-Jacques Rouger
Letterer: Cromatik Ltd.
Translator: Allison M. Charette
Published by: Dargaud/Europe Comics
Number of Pages: 88
Original Publication: 2019
To Join the Group…
…you needed to commit to this pledge:
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
“Jiggery-Pokery” is such an awesome term.
It goes further into a list of the ten commandments of the detective novel, which are worth reading if you’re interested in story structure, at all. 90 years later, these rules still hold up as solid mystery writing stuff. They amount to playing fair with the reader. (Well, there is the one about nobody from China being allowed to appear in the story, but I’m sure there’s a reason for that which was relevant to the times.)
It’s all just good, honest writing. Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and if you’re an extremely skilled writer, there’s no reason to think any of those rules are completely iron clad.
Right off the bat, Jean Harambat shows us that these are serious writers who’ve thought about their craft. If you’re a writer, you could learn a thing or two in the opening pages of this book.
And, of course, that also sets up the rules for the story you’re about to read.
A Mystery Starring Mystery Writers
The book begins in London with a friendly dinner for the Detection Club. They’re welcoming in the newest member of their club and the first American, John Dickson Carr. He wrote “The Hollow Man” and specialized in locked room mysteries and puzzles, which this book will happen to be about, of course.
An invitation shows up from a flying robotic bird. The group has been invited to visit a rich man’s private island so he can show them something. Roderick Ghyll is an eccentric loon, with a full support staff, and a super genius scientist he keeps on retainer to invent things.
The big surprise they’ve gathered together for is the unveiling of a robot who can tell you the ending of any mystery novel, given an outline of the clues.
This, of course, leads to disbelief, suspicion, and hostilities from the writers who make their living writing words to surprise people. It’s a very 2019 look at the problem of machines replacing humans, just set in the 1930s, with all the colorful clothes and language of that time.
It feels real because Harambat has plenty of parallels to pull from. The very existence of the Amazon Kindle has proven just as disruptive — if not moreso — than anything this robot is capable of. But the feelings are believable and real. You can hear their echoes across time.
Though, to be true, the writers in this book mostly scoff at the idea of the robot replacing them. They maintain the air of superiority that so many traditionally published authors held so high as the self-published authors began to hit the best-selling charts and make more money…
Of course, someone then disappears-and-is-presumed-dead, and the mystery writers have to come together to solve the mystery. That’s tricky because, well, these are some strong characters who don’t all see the world the same way. Everyone is a suspect, and no idea is too clever not to be consider and too silly not to be mocked. This collection of characters allows Harambat that ability. Everything is in play.
There’s a plot-solving robot already, so how could this story get any crazier?
The Strength of Good Characters
The trick that Harambat pulls off so well in this book is in maintaining a large cast without ever confusing the readers. The writers, alone, number seven. Then you have the island billionaire, his wife, his step-daughter, his chef, his butler, and, of course the robot. It’s a big cast that never once confused me.
The best part of it is the writers. They’re all strong, well-defined characters. The story mostly centers on G.K. Chesteron and Agatha Christie. He’s a bit of a large blowhard. She’s a witty, tough woman who can dish it out even more than she’s asked to take it, while not taking her writing quite as seriously or as rules-bound as the others. She’ll gleefully break them for a story, if need be.
Dorothy Sayers is a woman of action, ready to pull out her gun and fire at any moment. Baroness Emma Orczy is the slightly batty old lady who may be losing her mind and her stamina, or maybe she’s just faking it.
Monsignor Ronald Knox carries around the complete works of Sherlock Holmes like they were a bible, while Major A.E.W. Wilson is an old war horse who is his best friend and biggest antagonist. It’s a natural point of conflict: The military man and the peace-loving man of the cloth.
Harambat has assembled a cast of characters that should star in their own sit-com. It almost feels like something that could write itself, which is a testament to his abilities as a writer to create this cast. Their every line of dialogue is informed by their character, so it’s easy to keep them separated, and even to start to enjoy scenes just because an early favorite happens to show up at the start of one.
I could sit back and listen to the writers talking around the dinner table for hours. The dialogue between them all is brilliant, keeping in character at all times, which allows for a lot of witty barbs being thrown back and forth. Underneath it all, in certain pairings, there’s the obvious friendship and respect. But on the outside, it’s all sharp tongues and minds doing their best work.
The whole set-up reminds me of another group of writers made famous by Isaac Asimov’s “Black Widows Mysteries.” That was a mystery short story series about a group of writers who held monthly meeting and solved a new mystery in each one. The characters of the book were loosely based on the writers in the Trap Door Spiders dining club, like Lester Del Rey and L. Sprague De Camp. That book was dialogue-driven, as well.
The more I think about it, the more the situation with the robot reminds me of Asimov, too. Not just because Asimov is famous for publishing the Three Rules of Robotics, but also for creating psychohistory in his “Foundation” series. That’s a study of history which leads to the ability to predict the far flung future. It’s a bit like what we’d call Machine Learning today, and writ small, it might just help predict the ending of a mystery yarn.
The Good Art of Good Writing
Harambat provides the art in the book, too, and it’s not a style I would normally go for. It’s very sparse. Even the characters, themselves, look incomplete. The colorist has to come in to finish drawing hairdos, for example.
It’s not a very naturalistic style. It’s very iconic in its design, almost flat like a 60s animated series design element. Jean-Jacques Rouger, the colorist, adds some subtle shading in the colors to keep it from laying completely flat on the page.
But I fell in love with it. It serves the story well. The book is slightly absurd on the face of it. There are mechanical marvels well beyond what would be available at the time, and the cast of characters isn’t the most subtle or nuanced lot. They’re well defined, but they often feel like they’re coming out of a sit-com casting session.
The power of Harambat’s art, no matter the style he’s using, is that his characters are strong actors. Their faces tell the story, and their gestures convey intent and emotion. They’re not playing to the back of the theater. It’s rather subtle, overall, but it’s definitely there. You’ll get used to it in the first handful of pages and then enjoy what it does through the rest of the story.
Unlike many of the albums I review here, this one maxes out at three tiers of panels per page. I think the busiest pages are standard nine panel grids. There are even splash pages, though they don’t exactly function as overwhelming displays of artistic craftsmanship, like a Francois Schuiten splash might, for one example. They help set the location, really, but that’s it. This style works best in the panel to panel storytelling, not in creating awe-inspiring moments of fine art.
In the end, it won me over. I couldn’t imagine a different style for this book. I picture some other period piece, like “Road to Perdition,” and can’t imagine how going that much more realistic would serve this story. It works great as something more… cartoony.
More Thoughts on Storytelling
This book is broken up into two parts, which easily could have been two albums. At the end of the first, a scream echoes through the house. The second half of the book is the beginnings of the investigation over what happened to the character who went missing and, some assume, is now dead.
It features characters running around the house, investigations that prove the writers are better thinkers than they are actual detectives, and the mixed-up reactions to the news of such a death that many people are feeling.
In other words, Harambat takes everything he established in the first half of the book and gets to really play with it now that there are real stakes — and a situation perfectly suited for people of their skills. That’s good storytelling, and it constantly drives the book forward. Every conversation has some tension in it, or a question mark at the end. It’s a real page turner.
One trick Hambartan uses at irregular intervals through the book is moments of prose text overlaying or running side by side with the art. It’s not an excerpt of a book that stops the story dead in its tracks, though. This is more like a slightly wordy caption box, but displayed in a typeset way that more closely resembles a detective novel of the 1930s.
It’s a great way of invoking the feeling of the works of these classic prose writers and incorporating it into the comic book without slowing anything down.
Yes. Absolutely. No doubt.
If I wasn’t already in the middle of reading a prose novel, this book would push me to go read a detective novel of some sort. I love a good closed door mystery, so Carr would be high on the list. I’ve never read an Agatha Christie book, but a collection of Hercule Poirot shorts seems right up my alley. So many books, so little time!
“The Detection Club” is a great piece of comics work, with snappy dialogue and an imaginative plot that opens up the doors to some deeper philosophical debate. Harambat pulls it all off in this first part.
My review of “The Detection Club” v2 is also now available.
(“The Detection Club” is also available on Izneo.)
The Podcast Version of This Review
The 50th episode of the Pipeline Comics podcast was dedicated to “The Detection Club” v1, as well. You can listen that here:
Be sure to click through to the show notes for additional links and corrections.