The Route 66 List 5. …California

Writer / Artist
The Route 66 List 5. …California
The Route 66 List 5 California Review
  • UK publisher / ISBN: Cinebook - 978-1-84918-464-9
  • Volume No.: 5
  • Release date: 2010
  • English language release date: 2021
  • UPC: 9781849184649
  • Contains adult content?: no
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: no

If you ever plan to motor west, California is the final state on America’s iconic Route 66 and the title for the closing chapter in Éric Stalner’s sweeping thriller about Soviet sleeper agents in the 1960s. Reunited after the events of Oklahoma/Texas, Alex Poliac and his son Rob plan their revenge on the sinister serial killer the media knows as the Clown. Alex has known all along that was a front, all the victims being sleeper agents for the KGB just as he was. Then the Clown phones Rob with an offer – meet with a contact called Eva, do a simple job in Los Angeles, and both Alex and Rob walk free. Elsewhere FBI agent Laura Kensington becomes increasingly paranoid that her secrets will be exposed and is obsessed with discovering the identity of the elusive Soviet spymaster Sasha. In a culture rife with suspicion and betrayal, where no one can be trusted, the cast is on a course to a violent and tragic finale.

Previously, Stalner has always told The Route 66 List from the perspective of Alex or Rob through the unnamed narrator but for the opening of California, he builds his narrative around the Clown. It’s a clever and engaging device that allows the reader to discover his identity and crafts a foreboding backstory while simultaneously enabling Stalner to add details to events transpiring over Kansas and Oklahoma/Texas.

As the series artist Stalner has excelled at providing a 1960s Americana aesthetic whatever US state the cast find themselves. As time has passed for his players, Stalner has ensured the backdrop reflects those small changes, most evident in the cars. Stalner loves those old Lincolns, Fords, and Cadillacs and he captures them lovingly whether it’s parked by the side of the road or screeching around a corner, all helped by colourist Jean-Jacques Chagnaud’s impeccable palette. There are little dips in artistic quality like people’s features being more angular, a little looser, and less expressive, with exceptions like the Clown. However, it’s in illustrating movement that Stalner is dynamic and not in the obvious way either. How smoke languidly drifts upwards from a cigarette, or a fire takes hold of a building is as impressive as a gunfight in a parking garage full of those classic American automobiles. Stalner’s and Chagnaud’s California is cool and sun-drenched, whether rural or urban, but it’s also dangerous and there is a powerful sense that at any point it could flare into violence.

The tension provided by the art and the driving pace of the plot keep you hooked, and despite some obvious tropes this is a satisfying thriller. The art is sublime and the way Stalner finally reveals who Sasha is comes completely out of the blue in a Keyser Sὅze moment. The beauty of the entire series is that no matter how many times you come back to it, there is always something new and gripping both intellectually and visually.

If you like Cold War noir thrillers, brilliant art, and a great classic car, The Route 66 List is highly recommended.