We’re used to the apex of a serial killer story being two questions: who did it, and will they catch him. Green River Killer gets these two questions out of the way in the first chapter: it’s Gary Ridgway, and yes, they did. In fact, he’s helping the police to find the bodies they never found. And while a serial killer is sure to draw in people who are interested in the killings, Jeff Jensen is not one of those people. Instead, he’s interested in his father, Tom Jensen, the lead investigator on the case.
Primarily nonfiction, although with liberties taken, the book looks at the Green River killings that happened in the Seattle area in the early 80s, yet didn’t get Ridgway until 2003. And through those 20 years, Tom Jensen was always working on the case. The story uses his perspective the entire time to show a man who was determined to solve the case.
And when you have a story like this, it might be easy to focus on the family aspect of it. But despite being written by his son, there’s really very little of the family. It’s the man himself that’s the star of the story above all else. We see his age affecting him, starting with him fairly young and working as a clerk during the Vietnam War, to his older days when he’s retired from the force (although still working on the case), has little physical ability and carpal tunnel is wreaking havoc. One of the best moments in the book takes place across two panels, both just showing Tom’s face, from 1980 to 2003. The changes that have affected him just through time are obvious.
Of course, Gary Ridgway does play a big importance in the book. I think there’s a certain preconception of the creepiness that a serial killer has. Besides one very early scene in the book, Gary has none of this on the surface. He’s a normal guy, married, and he can barely even remember the details of the killings. Just from how he acts, there’s enough doubt that this man killed anybody at all. Of course, the other thing about serial killers is that we’re not supposed to realize the things that are actually going on in their head. And we dig deeper and deeper into Gary’s head as the book goes on, until we finally find the man that’s really inside. And it’s a haunting moment.
There are some problems with this book that stopped me from loving it. The biggest problem for me is the use of anachronic order. The book constantly jumps between present day and flashing back. This works when it’s jumping from the 80s to 2003. But it continues moving forward the flashbacks, until you’re pretty literally flashing back a few months before the “present” time of the book. It starts to get extremely confusing. This isn’t helped by the black-and-white nature of the book. While Jonathan Case’s art shows definite differences between the characters with age, I feel it would’ve been easier to tell with a color book. Along the same issues of time, I also felt that the book’s opening is rather rocky because of how fast it goes. You go through a major portion of Tom’s life in an incredibly short span of time. It’s ultimately not really necessary for the story, either. It’s a bit of Jeff just giving background on his father that you don’t need to enjoy the rest of the book.
Overall, Green River Killer is a book that just tells a classic story. The detective story that focuses on the detective himself isn’t new, but it’s told well here. A good read that stays with you after you finish it.