When you were a child, did you ever steal anything? C’mon, you know, like an individual piece of gum, or a piece of candy from a convenience or grocery store? If you did—and I know I am one who can as an adult raise his hand to admit as much—have you ever thought in reflection about why you did it? Was it because you were told not to, that stealing is wrong? Maybe it was because the adult you were with told you no, or maybe it was because you just wanted to push the limits to see what would happen? If you got caught (which I did), as an adult scolded you and told you how wrong you were did you find yourself muttering the words “But I didn’t hurt anyone”?
In Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes writer and artist Matt Kindt explores those questions (I will get back to those momentarily), creating his own unique vision of the detective story. Kindt stories I have read previously are a stylish mystery in some way, working from influences such as Graham Greene’s The Third Man to various Hitchcock and sci-fi elements all which coalesce through his imagination into hypnotic imagery and conspiratorial plots. While I greatly enjoy Mind MGMT, Kindt’s creator-owned monthly comic book series, I was surprised to find that Red Handed leans more towards Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Kindt channels the scientific, crazily focused aspects of various media adaptations of Holmes into his main character Detective Gould, whom Kindt also bestows characteristics that are a dash of Joe Friday and a dash of Victor Hugo’s Javert , a letter-of-the-law driven individual who believes he is keeping the peace for the rest of us. But for every version of Holmes, there is a Professor Moriarty to match him. Kindt’s adaptation uses that dynamic to tell a story of a matching of wits that boils down to incredibly engaging and complex questions about the nature of crime and society. The story of Red Handed is told in flashback from the point of Gould having a conversation with his nemesis, and Kindt frames his narrative in those conversations around questions such as: what defines a crime in society, who makes the laws enforcing that definition of crime, and what acts define a criminal? to name a few.
For Detective Gould, a crime is a crime as outlined by the established laws. If the law says something is wrong it is wrong. Kindt creates his straitlaced sleuth to not see any areas of grey pertaining to those that break the law, something that infuriates his criminal counterpart. While the criminals that we encounter in the text are not sympathetic to Gould in the outset, I could not help but think to myself as I read, Are they sympathetic to me? Can I see myself as being sympathetic to the lives of people who commit small crimes, crimes that are not about murder but do contain theft of some kind; see myself as a person that could move to maybe break laws in order to serve my own personal physical, psychological, and social needs? The interstitial moments of the conversations that Gould has with his foil debate/raise these problems and pose so many questions that I believe folks will re-read the book to challenge themselves to think about what side of the ethical/moral fence they sit upon.
Kindt’s artistic aesthetics has an established style and color choice, and you will see that in his Mind MGMT series and his other creator-owned work, but here he also blends a number of other styles and presentations. This playful yet very detailed design gives the reader momentum and simultaneously creates an actual mystery for the reader to attempt to solve before reveals occur. In fact, in re-reading I see all the clues Kindt lays out for us and find how all the characters discussed interlock and connect to each other and the main foil. For those not familiar with how comics or graphic novels are paced, Red Handed may feel a bit daunting at first, but due to Kindt finding a pace through his intermixing of layout and design, the reader should be able to move within the narrative with a degree of ease.
Red Handed is a good read and an interesting addition to the mystery genre of any number of the cultural mass entertainment mediums that have obviously influenced Kindt. Within this mystery, however, and what separates Kindt from more pedestrian tales of the mystery genre, are some serious questions he raises about the ethics of cultural right and wrong, borrowing as much from Hugo’s Les Miserables as the aforementioned Holmes mysteries of Doyle. The climax of the book may leave people with an initial distaste, and I am still uneasy about it myself much like how I felt at the end of the Coen brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, itself a meditation on questions of the binary oppositions of right/wrong and good/evil, but it drove me to pick the book back up and work my way through my unease.