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David Lapham’s Murder Me Dead is a nine-issue standalone series about a jazz pianist named Steven who gets caught in a web of violence and deception when he inherits a fortune following the death of his wife. We quickly learn he’s been having an affair with his sister-in-law, and this bit of dishonesty lends credence to his in-laws’ belief that he killed their daughter, despite the official ruling that her death was a suicide.

Soon, Tony arrives. Steven hasn’t seen him since high school fifteen years earlier, and didn’t particularly like him back then. It’s pretty obvious that Tony is looking to mooch off the grieving widower for an extensive bar tab at the very least, but perhaps something more. When Tony mentions that Steven’s high-school crush Tara is still around and always liked him, Steven tracks her down and rekindles the old spark they never consummated—although he nearly gets blasted with a shotgun first.

So begins a gritty, tragic tale populated by characters whose true intentions are always in doubt, whose sinister and ulterior motives are slowly revealed in suspenseful, page-turning fashion, and where everything goes from bad to worse for everyone involved.

Lapham fans undoubtedly know of his work on the noir crime series Stray Bullets, and Murder Me Dead taps into the same dark vein. But I found it easier to get into Murder Me Dead because, unlike Stray Bullets, it has a sympathetic main character who tries to do the right thing rather than a vast and largely unlikeable cast that seems perpetually hell-bent on always doing the wrong thing.

While Steven’s co-star Tara is clearly hiding things from him right from the first issue, her repeated victimization by other characters undermines our suspicion that she is a femme fatale. She makes too many blunders to be the conniving mastermind we often expect from that trope, and she appears to be more like Virginia Applejack from Stray Bullets—a basically decent person trapped in a world of felons, abusers, and perverts, yet struggling to make the best of her situation.

Its tight focus, relentless pace, sympathetic characters, and devious plot make Murder Me Dead one of my two favorite works by Lapham—alongside the similarly focused Stray Bullets: Killers which brought Virgina Applejack to center stage—and it’s every bit as darkly enjoyable as my favorite tales from Ed Brubaker’s Criminal. Highly recommended for fans of crime fiction.

Collector’s Guide: Murder Me Dead was published in nine single issues and a trade paperback by Lapham’s El Capitan, and re-issued in TPB by Image. Amazon has a digital edition, and you can often find the out-of-print hardcover edition there.