Noche Roja by Simon Oliver and Jason Latour (graphic novel review).

‘Noche Roja’ (English translation: ‘Red Night’) is a graphic novel take on the classic hard-boiled, film noir detective genre, but this time set on the Mexican-American border at some vaguely unspecified 1970s/1980s point in time. A number of young Mexican women have been found dead and horribly mutilated, but local law enforcement seems to have little interest in finding their killer. A former private eye, now burglar alarm salesman, Jack Cohen, gets hired by a young woman called Paloma Flores to find out what’s been going on. We quickly learn that Cohen has a history in this part of the world, including some events he’s been trying to forget.

In a sense, what we have here is a very traditional detective novel, despite the graphic novel format. Cohen is a flawed character, a borderline alcoholic whose drinking likely led to the murder of a friend, Jorge, who had uncovered a story that others wanted dead and buried. But he’s also a man with a conscience and, even when he learns he and Flores are being set-up, he sticks with the case, not just to find out who’s been killing the young women in the sweatshop factories, but also because he can’t let go of his part in Jorge’s death.

But this book also has a measure of social commentary. On both sides of the border, we see how the rich use the poor, how Americans view their Mexican neighbours and how men in power sometimes abuse the desperation of the women who work for them. It’s not a pretty picture and while Latour’s artwork is dark and occasionally unclear, for the most part it works, contrasting the harsh Mexican sunshine with the dark shadows where the deals get done.

If the book does have a flaw, it’s the somewhat uneven pacing. While the story opens with the discovery of a body on a rubbish pile, the subsequent set-up is relatively slowly, with a succession of encounters and flashbacks filling in the details behind the dramatis personae. This gives the book a certain complexity and depth that ensures it’s a satisfying read, despite its relatively short length. But once things start to unravel and the perpetrators find themselves cornered, everything unravels pretty quickly. One character being pushed to his death off a cliff, another being fed to tigers(!), a couple more dying in a shoot-out and a fifth deciding to top himself as the reporters start to circle.

Nonetheless, the poignancy of the ending and the hash retribution meted out to the villains fits neatly into the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction. There are no truly happy endings in that genre any more than there is in real life and ‘Noche Roja’ certainly plays up to that conception. It’s a grim story about bad people and, even if the reason for the mutilations and murders isn’t entirely convincing, there’s a figurative truth to the banality of it. If the murders are a literally one man brutalising women for his own needs and then disposing of their lifeless bodies afterwards, then the economic system spanning the Mexican-American border is certainly one that could be interpreted as one that allows rich men to use poor women terribly and without any serious consequences.

Neale Monks

August 2017

(pub: Titan Books, 2011. 184 page hardback graphic novel. Price: £17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-85768-228-4)

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