[22 March 2011]
One of the recurring conceits of the mystery genre is that there is always an answer to even the most daunting of puzzles and with the careful application of logic and sound reasoning the culprit—in whatever form it has taken—will be identified and that the crime—whatever it is—will be redressed. Conversely, stories involving ghosts, demons, and other supernatural entities, often rely on a rejection of the natural world with its rules and clearly defined laws, and instead reside in domains decidedly more illogical.
Consequently, when creators decide to blend these two genres together and force the logical to confront the inherently inexplicable, it often makes for interesting reading as the story attempts to challenge and frustrate the expectations of the readers. Legendary creator Mark Waid and artist Minck Oosterveer have attempted just such a synthesis in their book Unknown published by BOOM! Studios.
The story follows world-renowned detective Catherine Allingham and her assistant/bodyguard James Doyle as they attempt to solve a mystery whose subject matter is of personal significance to the veteran sleuth. Allingham, considered one of the smartest people in the world, has a terminal brain tumor and with her time is running out she has been asked to find a mysterious box that purportedly can measure the weight of the human soul. Naturally, the case intrigues as she attempts to use her considerable intellect to unravel the ultimate mystery of death. She hires Doyle, a former bouncer, to assist her in the event that her condition prevents her from knowing what’s real and what is a tumor-inspired illusion.
The main thematic punch from Unknown stems from Allingham’s confrontation with the seemingly supernatural juxtaposed with her own looming death. As a person of logic who has built her life and career on the idea that mysteries have answers, she attempts to use science and reason to answer what has long been the purview of the religious and spiritual. Ultimately, she successfully solves the mystery of the missing box, but the door between both life and death, and natural and supernatural, remains open. While she is able to find logical explanations for the various events she witnesses with a frustratingly Dana Scully-like persistence, the story reveals that not all these visions are byproducts of her mental condition and that there still some things that Allingham’s science has yet to explain.
While the book is ultimately successful in its objectives and maintains the reader’s interest, it at times feels a little underdeveloped. There is a sense that the story is rushing towards its conclusion with a few awkward time-saving devices, like an overly talkative villain to provide necessary exposition and the quick introduction of the Doyle character, so that it feels like to reader is filling in the blanks.
Ultimately though the book’s strengths outnumber its few weaknesses. The writing and art work well together with the supernatural side of the story being stylistically reminiscent of old EC comics. Furthermore, unlike mystery stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles, Unknown doesn’t take the reader to the edge of the supernatural and then back away at the last minute with a Scooby Doo like logical explanation. Instead it jumps right into the dark abyss and doesn’t blink as the door between the explainable and the inexplicable (and their two respective genres) gets kicked right its hinges.
In the final analysis, Unknown is a thrill ride. Think Indiana Jones, when the series was good, think Hellboy. And the book delivers even more of what these stories perhaps should have been, a honest weighing-up of the rational colliding with irrational genres of fiction. Unknown therefore comes with solid praise and is rated as a book well worth buying.