Friday, January 5, 2018

Book Review 2017 #8 - Rick Geary's Lover's Lane

Lovers' Lane: The Hall-Mills Mystery by Rick Geary
Published by: NBM Publishing
Publication Date: July 17th, 2012
Format: Hardcover, 80 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

On September 14th, 1922, shots rang out near an old abandoned farm used by the New Brunswick locals as lovers' lane. No one went to investigate and it wasn't until two days later that the bodies of Edward Hall, an Episcopal priest, and Eleanor Mills, a member of the church choir, were found. They were staged side-by-side with their feet facing a crab apple tree. A hat obscured Edward Hall's face so only his calling card propped against his shoe gave a hint as to who the male victim was at first. While both victims were shot, the female multiple times, besides having her hand placed on Edward Hall's thigh her throat was also slit from ear to ear, it was later discovered that her tongue and surrounding organs had been removed as well. Around them their love letters were scattered, an apparent judgment from the killer on this adulterous couple. Edward Hall was a pillar of the community and a favorite with his lady parishioners, though he ended up marrying spinster Frances Noel Stevens, an older woman who happened to be an heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune and lived with a mentally handicapped brother. Yet most of the community knew of his affair with the talented chorister, who herself was trapped in a loveless marriage. The case soon became a media circus, yet almost everything was badly handled, like Edward Hall's calling card which was handed through the gathering crowd for scrutiny. The crab apple tree was even denuded of branches by souvenir hunters. But the crime baffled the police, who didn't even know who should investigate, the bodies being found in the next county from where the victims lived. But again and again the investigation lead back to Mrs. Hall. Could she, with the help of her wealthy family, have killed her husband just as he was ready to elope with his mistress? For now, the case remains unsolved.

It's a wonderful thing to discover a new author and realize you have their entire back catalog to work through. I was lucky enough to stumble onto Rick Geary one dreary day at the library. I wasn't feeling the best and I wasn't at my local branch, but they had such a lovely display in their graphic novel section featuring several books I'd been wanting to read, from Alison Bechdel to the history of the Carter Family. And there, in between Fun Home and The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song was Adventures of Blanche by Rick Geary. Needless to say I actually took the whole display home with me. Geary's style seemed vaguely familiar but I was soon lost to the narrative, Geary had taken his grandmother's old letters as a starting off point and then lovingly embellished them to be more dramatic and more of their time, with murderers running rampant and famous painters walking in and out of frame. I quickly finished this slender volume and went to look up Geary online. Having worked for both National Lampoon and MAD during my childhood back when I devoured those tomes it's no wonder his style was familiar to me with his people that all look like they have cat whiskers for jawbone definition. He was a part of my past and very soon he was to become a part of my present when I realized that he had written oodles of true crime graphic novels! Nine of which I devoured last year and I can't wait to finish the remaining few.

Here's the thing about me. I LOVE true crime. I went through a period where all I watched was police procedural shows from Homicide: Life on the Street to all the iterations of Law and Order and I especially worshiped Unsolved Mysteries. Because I realized I don't really like true crime that happens now, I like true crime that happened then. I am not joking when I say that if I had a time machine I'd just go back and see who all the famous killers and kidnappers were. Who was Jack the Ripper? What really happened to James Ellroy's mother that turned him into the writer he is today? I don't just want, I NEED to know! When I was in undergrad I saw a very interesting one man play about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby. With all the new speculation about what really happened and Lindbergh's Nazi leanings I decided that the first book I'd check out in Geary's Treasury of XXth Century Murder would be The Lindbergh Child. I couldn't have been happier. This book, this series, combined two things I love, true crime and art. While many people might take issue with how simple his drawing style is, nothing more than line work, there is a place for ALL kinds of graphic novels in the world and this style suits the pared down, spare, clean way he lays out the crime and methodically analyzes it. Maps and cross sections of buildings make Geary the David Maccaulay of True Crime! In each of Geary's books I've read he has told and shown the crime more succinctly than any other author I've ever read. He has a gift for distillation and visualization that is remarkable.

But all this could apply to any one of his books I picked up from The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892 to The Murder of Abraham Lincoln. Here I want to talk about his handling of the Hall-Mills double murder that happened in the fall of 1922. This book just struck me so forcibly I can't quite understand why. It's almost as if I have a weird connection to the crime. It felt familiar somehow and yet, I'm sure I'd never heard of this crime before. While it lead to a media circus what I was drawn to was the more personal nature of this story. So many of the great unsolved crimes are serial killers who were never caught, yet here it's just an adulterous couple at the center of the media firestorm. Plus, the way the crime was committed, the removal of the organs that allowed Eleanor Mills to sing, plus having her favorite song removed from every copy of every hymnal in the church, I agree with the victim's daughter, it sounds like a crime committed by a woman. In fact, that's one thing I really like about this series by Geary, he shows that despite public opinion, women are just as capable of committing really heinous crimes. While this case was never solved, and was very much muddied by an attention seeker known as "the pig lady," Edward Hall's wealthy wife and family were tried and found not guilty. And yet the tale does have a sense of closure. Because a woman had to have committed the crime, and whether it was Frances Noel Stevens or another female parishioner whose advances were spurned by the priest, you have a handle on the probability of who the culprit was. Yes, Frances could have used her money to walk away from a crime she committed, she did act very oddly over the days following her husband's disappearance. But unlike Jack the Ripper, you can clearly see the motive if not the culprit.


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