In the category of “reprinted crime comics from David Lapham” that has sprung up this year, the “Stray Bullets: Uber Alles” edition is what you should spend your hard-earned money on. The forty-one issues it collects detail a rambling, surprising, sometimes terrifying, always compelling narrative about a disparate group of runaways, killers, thugs, and crazies that stands as one of the best things I’ve read all year. “Murder Me Dead”... Not so much, but it also stands as a great example of Lapham’s talent. The story itself kicks off with jazz pianist Steve Russell dispassionately regarding the suicide of his wife, Eve, by hanging from the ceiling fan in their home. Theirs had not been a good marriage and in the wake of Eve’s death, Steve find himself the target of scorn from the staff of the club she ran and he played at, and an investigation from a private eye hired by his wife’s family to find out what role he had in her death. It’s not all bad for Steve, as a chance encounter with an old friend leads him to a high school classmate he had a thing for but never acted on. Is Steve’s relationship with this woman, Tara Torres, his last shot at happiness or a final fling before the curtain is called down on his life?
As Lapham notes in his introduction, “Murder Me Dead” was inspired by the film noirs of the 30’s to 50’s and his desire to do a modern take on their style. So if you’ve got a little familiarity with the likes of “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Third Man,” “Kiss Me Deadly,” and “Touch of Evil,” then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the writer/artist is going for here along with how things are ultimately going to play out. That said, even if you do have a pretty good idea of how bad things are going to get for Steve it’s still pretty likely that you’ll enjoy the narrative’s many twists and turns. Steve may be no angel, but he’s a better guy than you’d expect, while Tara is undoubtedly one of the most brittle femme fatales I’ve ever read about. The two leads are also supported by a memorable supporting cast that is fleshed out in ways both unexpected and memorable. Lapham’s art is meticulous in its detail and panel arrangement, and he uses both to amp up the tension and fix your interest on the page when the action heats up. Most striking is the bravura flashback sequence made up of two-panel pages in the story’s last chapter where key secrets are revealed. Masterful execution of scenes like that elevate the story and make it one you’ll want to see through to the end, regardless of whether or not you know how it’ll all end.