Advance: John Arcudi & Toni Fejzula’s Dead Inside #1 is a Locked-Room Mystery, SquaredMain Art by Dave Johnson Comics Reviews John Arcudi
Wrtier: John Arcudi
Artist: Toni Fejzula
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: December 21, 2016
The locked-room mystery is a classic for a reason: it asks a detective to solve a crime with seemingly no logical explanation, and offers near-infinite variations for authors to choose from as they develop intricate mysteries and ingenious solutions. John Arcudi and Toni Fejzula’s Dead Inside is a knowing twist on this narrative template, as the investigation of its inciting murder takes place inside the walls of a jail. This first issue abounds with interesting wrinkles on the style, a haunted lead character and atmosphere to spare.
But the central mystery in Dead Inside is less a whodunit and more a question of motive. In the opening pages, the reader witnesses one inmate brutally murder another—but the killer’s reasons for his deed prove harder to figure out, especially after he dies under mysterious circumstances. Detective Linda Caruso is tasked with uncovering the truth, and Arcudi’s script neatly shows her connections to nearly every other character in the book. These are characters who already have a lengthy history, creating a world that feels lived in and forming a fully fleshed-out milieu for this investigation to unfold—especially when certain details seem slightly off, and Caruso attempts to figure out why information that should be easy to come by….isn’t.
Fejzula’s distinctive artwork conveys the weariness of these characters, who work long hours in jobs they don’t particularly care for. There are a few points where the angles of specific panels create a harshly stylized, distorted perspective, which can come off as melodramatic. The different locations this issue visits have a very specific feel to them; a scene in which Caruso and her neighbor sit outside and drink wine gives a terrific sense of the larger outdoor space surrounding them.
While some of this issue’s elements veer dangerously close to genre tropes—notably, the hard-drinking detective who pushes away those closest to her—the specificity of the setting does a fine job of keeping things fresh. There’s an element of (no pun intended) gallows humor here as well: one of the prison guards notes that the surveillance system is broken, due to a nearby maximum-security facility receiving most of the state’s budget. “We don’t house many violent offenders, is our problem,” he tells Caruso. In light of what’s come before, it seems like the bitterest version of irony.
Arcudi and Fejzula have impressively established a mysterious crime, a tangible world and the ominous feeling that background cogs and intentions are spinning unseen. All of the ingredients are in place for a memorable mystery and with the first issue of Dead Inside, its creators are off to a compelling start.