‘Fern’ Britten is a sour faced private eye, sorry, “Private Researcher,” drained, disillusioned, and bitter about a career that has earning him a reputation as The Heartbreaker. He doesn’t get out of bed for anything less than a murder these days. Stewart Brülightly, his partner, rarely gets out of Fern’s waistcoat pocket. He is the pragmatist of the two, an inherent quality, given he’s a tea bag. Prone to over-excitement and “infusing” in Fern’s pocket, Stewart suffers from a hyperactive libido that needs a good stewing in bromide.
The agency takes on a case involving a foul-mouthed heiress, amateur blackmail and a suspicious suicide, and their investigation uncovers sufficient twists and deceits to keep us turning the pages. There are the stock pulp characters – the rich and respected publisher of children’s books with a sideline in hardcore, the barroom waiter with eaves-droppings to sell – and some juicy noir situations that raise tensions and inject excitement, but there is little in Hannah Berry’s plot that hasn’t been done to death.
That’s not the point or enjoyment of this first effort by the Brighton (UK) based creative. That Berry can write isn’t in doubt. Throughout there are phrasings and constructions that suggest she loves language and knows when to be sparing, particularly with Fern’s ‘voice-overs’, but the gaffs of inexperience are clumsy and needed tighter editing. Naming characters Kudos, Leifmotif and Leverarch wasn’t a good idea.
A writing talent is in the making but Berry’s art is in full flower. The story is set in 1950s England. It is grey, dour and pissing it down. It never stops raining, and every camera angle in the manual is employed to ram home that poor old Fern is cold, tired and very wet. Every page is very wet, saturated in watercolour and a palette scooped from puddles. When it does stop raining you are indoors, in stern offices, uninviting bars and bland living rooms that crank up the Chandleresque claustrophobia of a family intrigue.
Yet for all the ‘rozzers’, Wolseleys and indefatigable rain, Britten and Brülightly doesn’t feel like an English comic. The excellence of Berry’s imaginative layouts convinces me I must have plucked this book from the bande dessinée shelves in Relay (the French W.H. Smith). Mostly witty, assured and appropriate, her realisation of a few key spreads is borderline but maybe experimental, something to be applauded in a breakthrough work. It is fitting that Fern is regularly confused for a Frenchman. Visually this is more Jean-Pierre Melville than Basil Dearden or Fritz Lang.
And now for my rant… I’m old guard. I can see no point in slaving over a script only to transcribe it into text that is ever unreadable. Certainly let’s encourage hand lettering (both cases) and the demise of Adobe Type Tools, but why write it such that folk can’t read it? When so much effort has gone into pictorial impact, sloppy lettering strikes me as lazy and a shame, particularly when the language flows (where legible) as in Berry’s writing. End of grump that sounds worse than it is in this case.
British women comic creatives rarely break into the mainstream. Posy Simmonds believes the publishing houses are institutionally sexist, but that successful professions can be found grafting away on educational comics and strips. Knowing the brick walls that major talents like Kate Charesworth, Maggie Ling and Suzy Varty have hit in their careers, it is hoped Jonathan Cape appreciate the talent they have in Hannah Berry and allow her wings ample space.
Oh, did I mention Fernández Britten is Ecuadorian?
7 – A flawed but impressive first outing deserving support.