Review of Britten and Brulightly by Rachel Heston Davis

by thiszine

Britten and Brulightly
by Hannah Berry


The world of comic books and graphic novels is sadly lacking in female contributors, but new voices are beginning to appear on the scene. One such writer is Hannah Berry with her debut graphic novel Britten and Brulightly, published first in Britain but recently released in the United States by Metropolitan Books. With a confident artistic style and a unique take on the PI/murder mystery angle, it establishes Berry as a woman cartoonist able to think for herself. She neither crafts a female-centric story nor imitates a male style just to fit in.


Private investigator Fernandez Britten became a detective to uncover truth and help people. But after sixteen years he’s uncovered nothing but pain and infidelity in the lives of his clients. Now middle-aged, Britten feels the despair of a powerless man who’s seen too much ugliness. He sports purple bags at his eyes and a weary demeanor.


But when young Charlotte Maughton asks him to investigate the death of her fiancé, Britten feels a long-lost spark of enthusiasm. The case will take him to the publishing office of Charlotte’s father Maurice, to the home of a cheating spouse from a previous case, and to a popular restaurant where the waiters have ears like sponges—and shaky loyalties.


Right from the start, Britten and Brulightly demands to be taken on its own terms. Far from the hard-edged, chain smoking private eye of comic books past, Britten empathizes with his clients to the point of depression. He moves this literary genre beyond just fitting puzzle pieces together, to a place of philosophical musing about truth and emotional well-being. He comes to believe that some mysteries deserve to stay buried, turning black-and-white notions of justice into a gray area.


Berry’s unique art matches the tone of the story. Shades of gray and washed-out colors emphasize Britten’s depressed state, along with bleak building interiors and rainy days outside. The confident drawing manages stark realism and a cartoonish flavor at the same time, with each character given exaggerated features (Britten’s nose rivals that of Cyrano de Bergerac, and Charlotte Maughton could cut a block of cheese with the hard lines of her cheeks).


Perhaps the most striking of Berry’s inventions is Stewart Brulightly, a talking teabag who resides in Britten’s pocket. Brulightly serves as comic relief, making quips on the action and gazing after pretty women, much to Britten’s chagrin. But he’s also a mirror, reflecting a side of Britten that was lost long ago—enthusiasm, humor, a zest for love and life.


To Hannah Berry’s credit, the authenticity of this talking tea bag is never questioned by the reader. There’s no hint that Britten is imagining him for fun, or going mad and hearing voices; Brulightly is just another character. The story takes him for granted, and so does the audience.


The novel has only one weak point: side characters who function as stereotypes. Maurice Maughton is the powerful-but-blackmailed man trying to threaten the investigator away. His rich wife oozes frigidity and contempt. Charlotte is the grieving lover desperate for answers. Britten’s religious neighbor spews unbelievably self-righteous lectures.


But apart from that, Britten and Brulightly is a handsome first work for Berry. Fans of old-school detective mysteries will find a fresh voice here, art-lovers will spend time examining every page, and other women cartoonists will be inspired by the high quality of the work. Readers’ reactions to the storyline will vary depending on their views of truth, human suffering, and the possibility of redeeming a broken life.
~ review by Rachel Heston Davis



Rachel Heston Davis lives in southern Illinois with her husband and two pet rats. An aspiring YA author and graphic novelist, Rachel spends her days having adventures on the page with her favorite invented protagonists. Check out her blog Up and Writing.


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