Every once in a while, I run across a book or a comic that feels like it was written specifically with me in mind. So it is with Ampney Crucis Investigates, a series that began in the pages of 2000 AD in 2008 and has presented four stories of Edwardian-era thrills, intrigue, horrors, and parallel universes.
It stars a very intelligent raconteur who, as the Great War began, was primed for high society, but he came back from the battlefields of France forever scarred by what he encountered there, and, after some years in recuperation, he found a new calling assisting police with their inquiries. If that sounds just a little bit like Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, you're certainly correct. However, Wimsey came back from the War shellshocked by the responsibility of sending young men to their deaths and, later, ably assisted by his former batman Bunter, began a sideline career as an amateur detective. Lord Crucis came back from the war shellshocked by the appearance of a Lovecraftian beast that appeared at the Somme to feed upon the life energy of the thousands who died and, later, ably assisted by his former batman Cromwell, began a sideline career looking into occult phenomena. Totally different.
Unfortunately, Ampney Crucis Investigates never quite rises anywhere near the peaks that Lord Peter Wimsey scales. The series, written by Ian Edginton, is a charming distraction with some surprising meat in its bones, but the 2000 AD need to keep punctuating the story with beat after beat of action and melodrama works against the growth of the characters. Edginton also has difficulty finding a way to write for the cerebral, slower pace of detective fiction, forcing Lord Crucis, awkwardly, into the role of an action hero. I'd say that his collaborator, artist Simon Davis, shoulders some of the blame here. Davis is among my favorite 2000 AD artists, and his design work and layout are tremendously good. Davis has a knack for really hideous monsters, and some bee-human hybrid creatures in the first story are a revolting triumph, but he's never quite been able to paint a person in mid-yell or mouth otherwise agape without that character looking comical. Lord Crucis, eyes wide open and mouth awkwardly contorted in some yawn of rigor, always looks ridiculous when the going gets tough.
But while the series would be greatly improved by either a longer episode or page count and a slower pace, to both let the lead character breathe more and actually do some detecting, there's still a lot to love about what has come so far. I really like the way that Edginton leaves very small details to the side without drawing attention to them. There's actually another character in Lord Crucis's employ, a female chauffeur who silently does her job and leaves the scene. There's also the blink-and-you'll-miss-it detail that he returned from the Somme with a grievous physical injury as well as the mental one. This is a series that definitely rewards additional readings, and while I might have quibbles with what the series is not, I can still be pleased by what has been done.
Rebellion's first collection of the series compiles the first two of the four stories in a slim, 96-page paperback. Their design team disappointed me by changing the otherwise uniform layout of the spine within their large line of 2000 AD books, but they still put a good package together with a pile of extra material from Davis's sketchbook, showing the evolution of some of the characters. They're both very good stories - the second, involving dead soldiers returning to life in Blackpool, is possibly even more outre and stunning than the business with the plant monster and the bee-people in the first, and not merely because of the scene where Lord Crucis lets it all hang out and gets some elderly pensioners to strip for a seance with him - but really, all four storylines could have fit comfortably in one package.
Lord Crucis's fourth adventure, which wrapped in November 2011, had a cliffhanger ending that saw him trapped in another reality. I don't believe that there's been a formal announcement of a fifth story, but I hope that it comes soon, and I also would not mind a one-off episode (or three) that just lets the characters breathe and grow without the need to throw fisticuffs and protect England's green and pleasant land from otherworldly horrors. How about a simple pre-War flashback, Edginton? It's that fun, and there's that much potential in it. Recommended with very minor reservations.