SO MUCH FOR QUICK AND EASY
In 2003, factory worker Gary Ridgeway confessed to killing 71 women, the largest number of victims every attributed to a single American serial killer. Despite that fact, “The Green River Killer” never received as much media attention as other vile counterparts like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy. Ridgeway’s victims were almost exclusively prostitutes or runaways, and his eventual arrest occurred just two months after 9/11. After decades of investigation, DNA evidence eventually trapped the murderer; a plea arrangement was struck to take the death penalty off the table, finding closure for the hundreds of families and friends infected by these horrendous crimes.
Green River Killer: A True Detective Story is an astonishing work of graphic fiction. Written by Jeff Jensen ( a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly) and illustrated by Jonathan Case (Comic Book Tattoo, Dear Creature), the book chronicles the 20+ years of scrutiny that finally brought justice to the victims of Gary Ridgeway. But this is not just another True Crime tale out to exploit the horror and the blood or real life terror. Jensen is the son of Tom Jensen, one of the lead detectives of the Green River Task Force. And this book reads more like a love letter from a son to a father than another Zodiac pulp paperback. It’s a book of great admiration to a man who devoted his soul to connecting the dots, a man who quietly contained the horror he prodded every day at the office from 1983 to 2003 until he finally got to sit down with Ridgeway and ask the question, “Why?”
What initially drew my hand to the book was the Stephen King quote splayed prominently at the top, “Terrific. It’s got the scariest opening sequence I’ve read in years, and the novel as a whole makes compelling stay-up-late reading. Great, creepy stuff.” It’s true that the 1965 prologue is immensely disturbing with its inevitable act of quiet violence. So yeah, a quote from the Master of Horror might draw you in for the chills, but as the book reached for its climax I found myself swelling with a taste of author Jeff Jensen’s pride for his father and before I closed the book I was shocked at the emotional resonance that had been struck. I cannot remember a time when a comic book affected me as much as Green River Killer.
One aspect that separates this saga from other pedestrian True Crime procedurals is the structure in which Jensen and Case tackle the material. Throughout its course, the book shifts in time from the early days of the investigation in 1983 to the month’s long confession process with Gary Ridgeway in 2003. The time stream of the book has this dreamlike fluidity, a DEFENDING YOU LIFE (Albert Brooks, 1991) quality that keeps the narrative grounded in introspection. You can feel the son discovering his father from panel to panel.
The 1983 segments, for the most part, are the bits you come to expect from True Crime. Early in the book, we see how Tom Jensen’s crackerjack status as the Navy’s SuperClerk turned College Campus spy brings him to Seattle’s Burglary Division and the inevitable Green River Task Force. Here you also get the crime scenes, the countless interviews, the stress on the investigator’s family, serial killer POV, and even Patrick Duffy’s “Manhunt Live.” This is the data collection section of the book, and it’s incredibly frustrating. The Green River Task Force is always just a little (well, 20 years) out of reach from the answers; they’re drawing conclusions from A to B to C but can never quite get to D. But what really matters is the information they’ve gathered, the DNA they’ve collected and stored, the trap that they’ve set. And once science catches up the trap springs.
The 2003 segments chronicling the 188 day interview process between the now, old men of the once Green River Task Force and the all-too-human Gary Ridgeway is the real heart of darkness. And if you found the decades long investigation frustrating than you’ll be positively enraged by the fumbling and stalling committed by Ridgeway holed up in his mattressed bunker. But if you feel frustrated, it’s nothing compared to the frustration felt by Detective Jensen. The man is brutalized by the unanswered questions and his struggle to pry the answers from Ridgeway is emotionally epic. Amazingly, Jensen doesn’t torture his family with his internalized anger; thanks to constant access to his tool bench and the occasional home improvement to gut, Jensen remains the proper husband and father.
And that’s the miracle of the book. Green River Killer: A True Detective Story is not the record of Good triumphing over Evil, but a story of a man surviving his quest for justice. And the beauty of the telling of the tale is the love and admiration that author Jeff Jensen spreads all over this saga. It’s the physical, unseen act of the author’s writing that eventually seized my heart. Those final moments of the book, when Detective Jensen finally sits down with Gary Ridgeway and asks “Why?” are startling and gut wrenching when depicted from the viewpoint of the son. A truly unique experience.
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