Review by Ian Keogh
It’s not an unreasonable viewpoint that all rock music originated with the handful of blues recordings made by Robert Johnson in the mid-1930s. Johnson died aged 27, the Mississippi Coroner not caring enough to include a cause of death for a black man in 1938, and that’s partly why myths about Johnson have survived the decades. Akira Hiramoto handled them very nicely in his first volume of Me and the Devil Blues. So did crime writer Ace Atkins in his début novel, which he adapts here with artist Marco Finnegan.
Nick Parker is a part time investigator and full time blues enthusiast, which only pays off financially with the occasional lecturing gig at Tulane University, where he’s told a colleague has disappeared. He’d gone further south to talk with someone who claimed to have known Johnson, and could Nick investigate? Atkins doesn’t depart very far from formula, but for the most part mines that formula evocatively, switching between Travers and some present day thugs and their victims, seasoned with the occasional dip back into Johnson’s era. The key to everything is recordings Johnson is said to have made, never released because he stole the master pressings and hid them. They’ve never been found, and that’s what’s at stake.
Finnegan as artist is a mixed blessing. His sketchy way with people, shading them in grey, expresses personality well, so Crossroad Blues features plenty of nice portraits, and he’s got a nice way of moving the action from panel to panel. Where Finnegan isn’t as accomplished is with locations. Inside or out, they’re all too often constructed from a few basic lines and blobs of shading or not supplied at all, the figures hanging in black or white areas. When traffic is needed Finnegan will give everything, but he can’t be bothered with buildings.
Perhaps she has a bigger role in the original novel, but for this adaptation the only prominent woman never transcends a sense of being there because Atkins feels duty bound to have a female character, because at one point Nick needs a driver and for the ending. That’s disappointing. Over five chapters Atkins has skirted cliché, toying with expectation, but never dropping into it, but once the revelations are disclosed, resolution is provided by a forced ending. It’s rushed in comparison with the remainder, as if we’ve jumped to 78 rpm all of a sudden, and not very satisfying. Nor do we learn the fate of the person Parker was first tracking, which was just a way into the story. We can guess, but there doesn’t seem any great reason to kill him. There’s a lot to like about Crossroad Blues, but it’s not quite malted milk.