“Living With Death: Murder at Oxford” is a recent comic from Indie publisher GrayHaven, written by Glenn Matchett and illustrated by Alan Anguiano. It is not related to Star Wars, science fiction, or any of the obvious fandoms we usually discuss at FANgirlblog, so why review it?
This first issue in a new mystery series revolves around not one, but two, female leads whose lives intersect with another pair of women when one of them is murdered.
That head count is four female characters at the center of this book, which pretty much qualifies it as required reading for fangirls interested in the status of women in fiction.
The best news is that this female-centric comic does not disappoint.
Glenn Matchett’s “Murder at Oxford” is the opening act of his “Living With Death” series. He is unafraid to write about important sociopolitical issues from a feminine point of view and incorporates bravely modern storytelling choices within this classically styled mystery. The relationship between protagonist Stephanie Hawkins and narrator Jenna Wakefield is brimming with intrigue, uncertainty, and potential. Although the path they will travel together as the series progresses is shrouded, the table has been set, leaving us to dream of delicious courses to be served as the investigation of a murder unfolds.
But first, get ready for some leaps through time.
The book immediately confronts its readers with a depiction of the 1982 strangulation of Oxford University student Georgia Long. Snippets of highly clinical observation are set in contrast to the victim’s horror splashed across page one, instantly raising the question of who is making such a cold assessment of the young woman’s death?
Page two jumps forward to 1999. We meet another student, Jenna Wakefield, as she sadly recalls the chain of events that began with Georgia’s murder. Jenna becomes an impassioned narrator when painful memories surface about a second killing – that of her closest friend, Stephanie Hawkins. After informing readers of important details, Jenna’s character quickly guides the story back to the beginning, so that we can learn the sequence of events after Georgia’s death. This serves to satisfy a craving for context.
Without resorting to muscled Amazons or cool superpowers, Matchett has created believable women who are compelling because each promises depth of character. Stephanie Hawkins is an enigmatic woman who is uncompromising and smart, not tough or masculine in a way that some writers might have created her. Clearly, we are meant to get to know the woman hiding behind cold, terse manner but that will take time, and in this first installment at least, Matchett offers only tantalizing hints while most of her story is still to be told.
The writer teases readers with hints and innuendoes through the voices of characters as complex as the murder mystery itself. Matchett gives us his “reveals” slowly, even haltingly, with a faint undercurrent of glee that could only come from an author who has great affection for the mystery genre. In a Spotlight interview for GrayHaven Comics, Matchett cites classics by Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well as television’s Ashes to Ashes among his many influences. Their presence is felt in the crafting of this story, although Matchett has a particular talent for sprinkling the pages with tantalizing tidbits that expand a reader’s curiosity.
Readers are not told why Stephanie Hawkins is acting as an unorthodox investigator in the case of Georgia Long’s death yet her passion suggests that she is more likely than the authorities to solve the crime. Beneath her cold demeanor is an inference that she has reason to care about what happened to Georgia, and that makes you care about her. Like Jenna, readers can recognize on some level that Stephanie has a kind of heroism all her own but instead of superhuman powers she employs intelligence in her quest for the truth.
Writing a mystery so that readers are left wondering about unanswered questions is a necessary yet double-edged sword. Matchett hits his best notes with Stephanie’s dialogue. Her character is more sharply defined while Jenna’s is less compelling. It will be interesting to see how this balance evolves as these two characters and their friendship develop throughout the series. In addition, there are a few occasions when narrative and dialogue pull the reader away from a scene for a few seconds too many, disturbing the flow, the pacing, and the nicely established mysterious atmosphere.
The two male characters in this first part of “Murder at Oxford” are relegated to acting as scene-setters and both feel amusingly stereotyped: Oxford’s Professor Ross is more concerned about the university’s reputation than a heinous murder, and the serious, note-taking Inspector Larson is a detective wrapped up in methodical protocols that leave him lagging far behind Stephanie’s investigative success.
Matchett plays with a number of role reversals in obvious and subtle ways, leaving the impression that he has a gently lighthearted view of everyone’s place in the world. This approach is refreshing, and he uses it to good effect as relief from the dark and deadly mysteries of his characters and plot.
Alan Anguiano’s stylish yet uncomplicated black-and-white illustrations work well to set a visual tone that reflects the many contrasts in Matchett’s story along with the stark sociopolitical realities of the 1980s. The complexities of primary characters, while not fully described in words, are frequently visible in the book’s drawings. It will be interesting to see how the new artist coming on board for future issues interprets the rest of the series.
Readers may find the time-hopping in the first few pages a bit jarring, but the 1980s context combined with Jenna’s retrospective point of view do serve the sociopolitical aspects of this story well, and suit the classic feel of this book’s genre.
“Living With Death: Murder at Oxford” is perhaps overly ambitious in tackling so many social issues while respecting the mystery genre. It will take skill to keep so many subjects in play throughout the series but Matchett may be just the writer for the job. Certainly his heroines will be appreciated for their numbers and emotional depth, plus their apparent need for empathy rather than forgiveness or redemption. Here is that elusive rarity: a male author who understands how to write women.
Mary is a retired Registered Nurse who specialized in Trauma and Emergency medicine. She loves the space opera of Star Wars, most Science Fiction, Fantasy, Adventure, and comic books. Mary can be contacted at email@example.com or visit her blog galacticmatters.