Green Mansion volume 1: Assassins and Gentlemen


By Bodart & Vehlmann, translated by Elaine Kemp (Cinebook Expresso)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-53-3

The French are generally considered more passionate than us Brits and always eager to dole out grandiose appellations and epithets about creators, but at least they’re very seldom wrong in their acclamations. Young writer Fabien Vehlmann was only born in 1972 yet his prodigious canon of work (published from 1998 to the present) has earned him the soubriquet of “the Goscinny of the 21st Century”

Vehlmann entered the world in Mont-de-Marsan and grew up in Savoie, studying business management before taking a job with a theatre group. In 1996, after entering a writing contest in Spirou, he caught the comics bug ands two years later published – with illustrative collaborator Denis Bodart – a quirky, mordantly dark and sophisticated portmanteau period crime comedy entitled Green Manor.

The episodic, blackly funny tribute to the seamy underside of Victoriana appeared only sporadically until 2005 (and was revived in 2011), whilst the author spread his wings with a swathe of other features such as Wondertown (art by Benoît Feroumont) and the hugely popular children’s thriller Seuls (with artist Bruno Gazzotti) before undertaking a high-profile stint on veteran all-ages adventure strip Spirou et Fantasio.

Vehlmann has continued to craft enticing and engaging tales for kids (Samedi et Dimanche) but is equally adept on more mature fare like Sept psychopathes (with Sean Phillips). He even briefly drew his own strip Bob le Cowboy

His partner in crime on Green Manor was Denis Bodart, who studied at the Saint Luc academy in Brussels before taking up teaching. He soon resorted to a life in comics, debuting in 1985 with Saint-Germaine des Morts (scripted by Streng) for publishing house Bédéscope.

Three years later he co-created – with writer Yann (Yannick Le Pennetier) – Célestin Speculoos for Circus and Nicotine Goudron for l’Écho des Savanes whilst becoming a jobbing freelance comics artist with work regularly appearing in Spirou and elsewhere.

Following his highly acclaimed turn here he moved on to succeed Jean-Maire Beuriot as artist of Casterman’s prestigious Amours Fragiles.

The premise is both deliciously simple and wickedly palatable. As this book opens in the infamous Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital in 1899, prominent Dr. Thorne is seeking to interview the inmate known as Thomas Below.

That poor unfortunate had served as a domestic in a Gentleman’s Club for his entire life but became violently delusional mere days before retirement. Now as Thorne questions the madman deep in the bowels of “Bedlam”, the savant realises the sorry soul before him believes he is Green Manor incarnate. He has certainly been privy to all that strange place’s secrets, surprises and hushed-up scandals…

Hesitantly Below begins telling tales of rich, powerful and ostensibly honourable men at their most excessive and unbearable…

What follows is a macabre menu of short tales beginning with ‘Delicious Shivers’ wherein a roomful of The Great and the Good gather around aged patriarch Dr. Byron on an October night in 1879. The respected physician poses an intriguing challenge to the assemblage: “can there be a murder without a victim or a murderer?”

Most of the men gathered have dark hearts and cunning minds and Sir Foswell rises to the challenge with his story of a noted aristocrat who erased an unwise early marriage – and “disappeared” his unwanted bride – by dint of bloodshed, money and influence.

Inspector Darcroft then proffers a case whereby there was no discernable murderer although the victim was most certainly gunned down at close range…

As the heated banter builds, events take a very dark turn once Byron informs them that he has personally caused such an impossible crime to be committed. To the shocked silence of the throng he describes how the administration of an extremely slow-acting poison in the drinks of some, many or all of those gathered may or may not kill an unspecified number of them at some unguessable time in the future…

Of course he might just be jesting to win a point but nobody goes home complacently that night…

‘Post-Scriptum’ then describes the lethal intellectual duel between dashing young Detective Johnson and aged Sir Alfred Montgomery in August 1882, after the latter defies the policeman to stop him killing a young woman. The rules of the competition are quite strict and the noble believes he has succeeded in committing a perfect crime, but although the noble correctly considers himself a cunning planner his character judgement leaves much to be desired…

Weary and frustrated police Inspector Gray’s decades-long hunt for a serial killer ends in shock and castigation when he arrives at an astounding conclusion one gloomy night at the Club in September 1882.

That worthy’s too-late grasp of an impossible ‘Modus Operandi’ subsequently leads to glorious triumph but also a most surprising outcome and response from a fellow clubman and confidante…

The most baroque and arcane yarn in this collection involves another intellectual game and imaginative wager placed in March 1893, when two connoisseurs of crime determine to commit the most artful murder of all time. Their target must be none other than author and criminologist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and to make things interesting the offending weapon must be ‘21 Halberds’

In April 1872 Lord Denton invited young artist Eric Kaye into the Green Manor Club to repair a damaged painting by the great lost genius Jason Sutter. However the dazzled dauber became obsessed with the story behind the austere family portrait – especially the tragic beautiful daughter who suddenly vanished from history – depicted in ‘Sutter 1801’ but his fervent enquiries led to the resolution of a decades old mystery, murder most foul and eventual banishment as his only reward.

Proud and undaunted, Kaye patiently devised a most exquisite vengeance…

The catalogue of upper class skulduggery concludes with ‘The Ballad of Dr. Thompson’ and a most arcane and uncanny murder mystery which begins in 1878 when great friends Professor Ballard and Thompson bid each other a drunken goodnight on the club steps.

Only one of them makes it home safely and when the other’s corpse is found stuffed into a grandfather clock the police investigations soon lead to the most insane of conclusions…

Wry, witty, wickedly funny and sublimely entertaining, Assassins and Gentlemen offers a superbly rewarding peek at High Society and low morals which will delight and astound lovers of clever crime fiction and classy comics confabulations.
Original edition © Dupuis 2005 by Vehlmann & Bodart. All rights reserved. English translation 2008 by Cinebook Ltd.