By Sam King
When I was studying literature in undergrad, I took a course on detective fiction and had to read several novels for it. We talked about the elements of the genre and examined how authors did things differently as far as openings and reveals of clues go. I’m not a stranger to the genre in general, but this one just did not do a very effective job at providing a good story. I’m also not a blues connoisseur, so maybe that is part of it.
Crossroad Blues is a graphic novel based on a literary novel of the same title by Ace Atkins. Nick Travers is the main character. He is an ex-professional football player who has become a college professor and blues music historian. He goes on a search to find the lost records of Robert Johnson, a blues artist from the 1930's. I have never read the original novel, but the general premise seemed interesting since I enjoy a good mystery every now and again. I wanted to know what happened with Robert Johnson and his records. By the end, I was caring less and less.
My first problem is with Nick. I understand why a historian would want to go looking for lost records that have historical significance, but I didn’t find myself caring too much about his character. For that matter, I can honestly say that I didn’t care about ANY of the characters. The girl he dated didn’t feel worth a grain of salt, so if anything were to happen to her, I wouldn’t even blink. I think that Nick should have just gone home when he got into trouble because he definitely had no business sticking his nose into dark places when he doesn’t seem to have any law enforcement or armed forces background. I don’t think the guy even knows karate. Do I believe a professional foot player could deal out some major damage in a fistfight? Sure. Do I think they should be diving into affairs involving murder and people kidnapping? Hell no. Nick was not an entirely likable character, and I honestly don’t care what happens to him now or in any other story. In some parts, he shined, like when he sticks up for people he knows, but in general, he is pretty boring.
Another issue I had is with the pacing. Things happen very quickly without being set up very well. There is an Elvis obsessed hitman, but I honestly don’t know what his point or motive was except find the records first and remove anyone in the way. That is just a plot and conflict FORCER, so what I’m trying to say is that nothing seems naturally to unfold. Most things that happen appear forced and choppy, but not in an artistic or creative way that helps the story in the long run. Things are nicely unfolding for a while, but then things just get thrown together in ways that are like “what just happened?” The whole thing with Earl Snooks just felt bizarre to me. It was like chasing a ghost when the real phantom has been in front of you the whole time, but with no way of being able to figure that out and providing no satisfaction once the curtain is pulled away to reveal the truth. There was also a standard money hungry guy who wanted the lost records not for the love of music, but due to money and power. The money loving archetype with no heart has been overdone and left no intrigue as far as villain motivations go.
I think that this story would be better in novel form. I would not be opposed to reading the novel it was based on, but I can’t say the graphic novel sells me on feeling like it’s a must-read. While I haven’t dived into the noir subgenre, I don’t think this was the best introduction. The idea of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil was much more interesting on its own. A story centered more on Robert Johnson and who killed him, without the modern find the lost records element would have been much more intriguing. This story just has too much going on and not smooth enough transitioning or adequate character development at its core to be successful to me. The race to the records from opposing parties could’ve been done a little better and more convincingly. I don’t see how putting down Elvis and creating a character with an obsession with him as a bad guy does anything integral to the story overall. It may be a musical criticism, but for a mystery and villain element it is gimmicky and doesn’t read well in the story long term. It feels like he was created as a musical comparison and to take jabs, not as a person with a real motive for going after the records.
Overall, I think this one has some glimmers of potential that weren’t fully realized. The worst problem I have is the characters and development of the story. I think with a bit more time they could have been fully realized (assuming that they are in the book) and the story could’ve been smoothed out to be very intriguing. If the novel is the exact same as this, please tell me now so I don’t waste any time with that because I don’t think I could take it again. I wanted to like this and even tried reading it a second time to see if I liked it any better, but it just doesn’t hit the right notes to be something I can personally recommend to anyone except blues fans who may know more about Johnson and the blues scene. Maybe they would be more excited by this. I’m a big music lover, but the blues just aren’t doing it for me.