Book review: Green River Killer

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

The Green River Killer was one of the most prolific US serial killers in history, keeping the Seattle and Tacoma area wary for at least 20 years. It’s thought that the killer, Gary Ridgway was responsible for upwards of 70 murders dating back to the early 1980s.

Bodies were still discovered as recently as 2003.

Ridgway was ultimately convicted of 49 of the murders, and received a sentence of life without parole as a result of a plea bargain in which he agreed to reveal the locations of still-missing women. As it meant the killer would avoid the death penalty, the process of searching for bodies was kept tightly under wraps, for fear of public outcry.

That’s where Green River Killer begins: with a man in cuffs leading increasingly exasperated detectives around paved-over grasslands in the search for more bodies.

(I tell a lie: that’s not the very beginning, but I don’t want to spoil the shock of entry to this world for any potential readers.)

The presentation of the story here is truthful, but also fictional: there are some changed names, and there’s amalgamation of individuals to create composite characters where it would better serve the narrative. But make no mistake, this work stays close to the source, because Jeff Jensen, the writer, is the son of Tom Jensen, a detective who worked the case for more then 20 years, even when it was mothballed by the department with no real conclusion.

What we’re presented with is a dual story of obsession. For Tom Jensen, it’s the desire to catch the killer who has been destroying lives. His obsession leads him to take out stresses of the case by continually remodelling his house, and by keeping the advice of Sherlock Holmes close to his heart. Ridgway’s obsession is darker, naturally, and its revelation, it’s discovery and his transformation from unhelpful con to killer in full recognisance of his acts of horror.

The story is presented slowly. This isn’t a fast-paced thing, and it follows the slow progress of the case itself. Jonathan Case’s artwork is clean and crisp, with little in the way of illustrative editorialising: it’s a police procedural, a by-the-numbers approach. We skip between time periods, seeing both Ridgway and Jensen as young and older men. We see the pressures that the weight of the Green River Killer – both as the hunter of and the man behind – impact both individuals.

I didn’t twig until a neat panel towards the end of the work that Jensen the author was related to Jensen the cop. There was a bit of father-son ribbing that’s quite sweet that gives it away. But that knowledge does reinforce the fact that this portrait of an aging detective trying to bring a perpetrator to justice is personal and well observed.

It’s common in serial killer writings for the killer to become a larger-than-life figure, for the cult of personality to take over, and it’s really refreshing to have that subverted here: Ridgway is not the great mastermind, the great villain. The focus of the investigation is on him, but the focus of this graphic novel is on the man who brings him to justice. While we see Ridgway’s life through flashbacks, and we do have a sense of the man from those, it’s really through Jensen’s lens that he makes the most sense – only with the interaction from Jensen, particularly in interrogation, does Ridgway finally make some terrible sense.

Green River Killer is dark, but ultimately hopeful. It plumbs horrid depths, and is unafraid to show the physical and mental effects of doing so – but it does remind us that sometimes the bad guys do get caught.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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