With “Bury the Lede,” Gaby Dunn Reshapes the Modern Thriller

From the moment I saw Bury the Lede previewed on this very website, I knew it would check a lot of my boxes. My favorite movies are Spotlight, a Best Picture winner about the power of journalism to give voice to the voiceless, and The Silence of the Lambs, a horror movie about being a young, ambitious woman. Bury the Lede seemed to me to have shades of both, but when I finally got to crack open Gaby Dunn’s first graphic novel, I loved it not because of the ways it reminded me of my favorite pop culture, but because of the ways it turned on their heads the best tropes about journalism, detective work, and being a woman and a minority in either field.

“Bury the Lede” follows the familiar, even classic format that makes a hard-boiled detective story work, but Dunn takes that wireframe and expands upon it to make something unique.

I read a lot of thrillers — maybe too many. Some are predictable, populated by emotionally-repressed men, women who do strong detective work and get about as much credit as furniture, or by overblown female villains out for revenge on a cheating lover. Other thrillers manage, with nuanced and three-dimensional female heroes and villains, to subvert mainstream ideas of what a woman is or should be — ideas that somehow still exist in society and on the page. There’s a tidal shift within mystery fiction toward crime-solving women who aren’t quiet, are openly ambitious, are normally prickly in a way that gets them labeled a bitch. And they are, much to my chagrin, nearly always straight (not to mention cisgender, white, and a middle class striver of the Andi-in-“The Devil Wears Prada” level).

In “Bury the Lede,” main character and Boston Lede intern Madison Jackson is just tired. She’s overworked. And she’s happy, even grateful, because every sleepless night is another chance to prove herself in a hyper-competitive newsroom. She’s more than just a woman in a male-dominated profession; she’s a millennial trying to prove herself in order to secure a place in an increasingly insecure field, because journalism is the only job that feels right to her. She’s a queer person in a role that demands its best and brightest be apolitical, neutral, but her convictions and strength of feeling are what make her a formidable investigator.

Madison is struggling to stand out in her superiors’ minds when an evening spent listening to the police scanner ends in a nightmare. The young reporter turns out to be the only person to whom alleged murderer Dahlia Kennedy will speak, leaving Madison responsible not only for figuring out what Dahlia is really hiding, but also for salvaging what’s left of her internship and maybe her career. “I’m a spectacle,” Madison realizes, “When I should be the spectator.”

I am, as Dunn describes herself in her author bio, a “recovering journalist.” Like Madison, I busted my ass through several internships to rack up stories I could be proud of. I was ultimately driven out of full-time reporting by the stress of watching talented colleagues get laid off (again and again and again) by the larger company that bought our paper, but Bury the Lede made me nostalgic for the thrill of a good public records search, or the relief one feels at getting a source in law enforcement to open up. Thanks to Dunn’s story and Claire Roe’s art, I got to live vicariously through Madison for a couple of hours.

Roe uses a color palette that’s all cool blues and purples, with shocks of orange jumpsuits or crimson blood offering contrast, shades of tangerine orange or magenta giving a bar scene depth. It feels old-school and gritty. It’s shadowy, ready for a moody David Fincher treatment. The art not only complements and enhances the tone of the story, but also helps along with staccato dialogue and a taut inner monologue to maintain the story’s fast pace.

Dunn nails what it’s like to have a job that is all-encompassing, that pits your personal beliefs against a call to something higher — whether that something is your own success, or the greater good. I couldn’t stop turning pages as I watched Madison grapple for advancement even at the expense of family or romantic ties, or watched her struggle to weigh professional ethics against justice.

Dunn has written about not wanting to paint bisexuals as model minorities, and may I just say, Madison is a complicated role model, if you’d consider her one at all. Thank god. I don’t want characters to look up to; I want characters who feel like the oldest of friends: I can see their perspective and respect their best qualities, even if I disagree with them in the moment. Although I sometimes cringed at Madison’s choices as she walked an increasingly thin line between reporter and detective, I never stopped appreciating her tenacity.

As Madison tries to untangle a web of lies and turn it into a great story, one thing is consistent amid personal and professional tumult: the job comes first, even at the expense of family ties and romance. This makes Madison like any number of detectives of page and screen, except for one crucial thing. There are no kids in Madison’s life, so there’s no opportunity for her to do what detectives (usually fathers) always do: get home late and gaze wistfully at their sleeping children, who represent innocence. Then again, Dunn wouldn’t do that to us; she’s playing off of genre tropes, not repeating the tired ones.

Even though Madison’s romantic entanglements are questionably ethical and inextricably linked to work, just like those of so many fictional sleuths before her, they have something most detective’s trysts don’t. Madison is not only bisexual, but also surrounded by hot queer people at nearly every turn. Some of them, she works with — like Lexington Ford, a badass soft butch veteran reporter with swagger for days, or Dahlia, who carries and styles herself like super-Mommi Carol Aird but claims to kill like Villanelle. Other queer-presenting characters are part of a crowd scene or a newsroom backdrop — they’re here, they’re there. Spotting edgy haircuts or shit-stomping boots in a panel felt like coming home, or like being seen. The queer sex, when it happens, is neither gratuitous nor rendered for the straight gaze — something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, anywhere.

Dunn brought an inherently queer, millennial perspective to financial advice in “Bad With Money,” and that perspective again comes through in Bury the Lede. And although I usually read thrillers as more of an escape, a chance to get lost in a puzzle, it’s refreshing to finally find an enthralling mystery that’s also loudly and proudly populated by queer folx and people of color. Dunn has broken the story wide open when it comes to finding representation in detective fiction; maybe more writers will follow her lead — I mean, lede.

Lisa A.C. Ryan is a writer living in Philadelphia. Follow Lisa on Twitter, she would love to see pictures of your dog(s). You can also find her on on Medium and Instagram.

Lisa has written 2 articles for us.

2 Comments

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.