Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review: Britten and Brülightly

Britten and Brülightly, by Hannah Berry, 2009, Metropolitan Books, 112 pages, $20

This noir mystery starring a depressed private investigator first caught my eye with its distinctive, stylish art. The story holds its own, however, making this one of the most enjoyable comic books that I have read this year.

Drenched in rain and secrets, Britten and Brülightly tells of "researcher" Fernández Britten's efforts to crack the case of the dead fiancé: the police say suicide, Britten's client believes it was murder, and so Britten is off to hunt down clues scattered across 1940s England, accompanied by his partner Stewart Brülightly.

This is twenty-five year old English author Hannah Berry's first book, but it sure doesn't feel that way. The writing is assured, with character, dialogue, and plot all working together to drive the mystery along. Berry even throws in some light comedy, mostly through the wisecracks of Brülightly, who -- did I mention this? -- is a teabag that resides in Britten's pocket. It's an off-the-wall idea, but it somehow works; Brülightly's existence gives us a little more insight into the workings of Britten's mind, gives Britten someone to bounce ideas off of, and marks this book as something more than your average genre piece.

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And Britten is quite an interesting character. Berry has said the following about him: "Often in noir the hero is hard-bitten but manages to wear it on his shoulders like a lead mantle. I quite like the idea of having a character that was eventually broken down, if not unhinged, by events. Hopefully it’s given him a more fallible, human face." That certainly comes across, and he does feel like a human, a person, as opposed to either a blank slate or a bundle of detective clichés. Plus, he's fascinating to look at, with those dark circles around his eyes and that huge schnozz.

Berry's art really is terrific. I got a real feeling of the shapes inside of the people and things in her drawings, wearing their slightly cartoony outer shells. Plus the colors are beautiful and help to contribute to the overall tone of "dour foreboding," as Berry called it.

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That's just a gorgeous painting, if you ask me. Berry also does some fun things with form, like on the page below:

She could have drawn the bottom shot in one big panel instead of slicing it into three panels, but this way she can show that the conversation is taking place over time through the almost imperceptible movements of the people in the scene (notice the waiter walking through all three panels, and the one customer who moves his head slightly?). That's just neat, smart comic-booking.

Or on this next page, where she shows Britten's taxi ride from the city to the country from his viewpoint in the four panels in the center row, all four linked by the wispy, foggy streaks from looking out through the glass window:

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Good stuff.

It seems like once a year a comic from Britain washes ashore that is both a wonderful book and is totally unlike anything else. Last year it was Tamara Drewe. This year, it's Britten and Brülightly. I highly recommend this book.

Want more? Here is a twelve-page preview, and an eight-page preview, and that interview with Berry from June of 2008 that I mentioned above.

Buy it from the publisher here or from Amazon here: Britten and Brülightly


Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.


  1. Nice. This is one that I've been hearing about and wanting to read, and your review only exacerbates that feeling.

  2. Definitely seek it out. I'd give Seconds Thoughts a "borrow it" and Britten and Brulightly a "buy it," if I had to compare the two books that I've reviewed most recently.

  3. ...just finished reading...was very interesting and atmospheric...Loved the whole book...well done!!!Jiri