Game Write: Jane Jensen’s Kingdom Come (2016)

Game Write is a recurring series dedicated to the fiction of game industry veterans. From the best-selling titles of Drew Karpyshyn and Austin Grossman, to the obscure classics of Jane Jensen and Sheldon Pacotti, this series hopes to unearth both the gems and the trash we tend to leave buried in the credits. In this entry, we review Jane Jensen’s Kingdom Come, a thrilling murder mystery set in and by a rural Amish community.

jensen_kc_ebAfter a thirteen-year hiatus from publishing fiction under her own name, Jane Jensen returned to prose fiction with gusto in 2016, publishing two mystery novels in a new series about a Detective Elizabeth Harris. Kingdom Come is the first of this new series, introducing Elizabeth Harris as a detective returning home to rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. After the brutal and random murder of her husband, Terry, in New York City, Elizabeth is escaping the complexity and the purported darkness of her urban lifestyle. It’s her hope that the simplicity and nostalgia of a rural community with an integrated Amish population would be enough to pull her out of her shell.

Brutality is everywhere, unfortunately, and Kingdom Come opens with the murder of a teenage girl named Jessica. Her body’s carried through the freezing snow — and through a freezing creek — and dumped in the barn of an Amish family of no relation. Jessica was an ‘English’ — an outsider seemingly disconnected from the Amish community. Her body is arranged to imply a sex-related murder, but none of the finer details of her murder seem to fit that arrangement: Why was she dumped there? why was her body stored in and by the creek for a period of hours? Jessica was hit from behind — not too hard — and then suffocated while remaining unconscious, which also seems to contradict the context of sexual assault, so why the prepared arrangement?

The Amish community is hesitant to help — not out of guilt or suspicion being cast, but due to the community’s beliefs in privacy and God’s will. Their apparent indifference to a young woman’s murder is infuriating to Harris, who juggles respect for the community and individuals with a sense of being challenged and disrespected both as an English and a woman. Not only do they not seem to care for the dead English woman, but they imply she was asking for it by living dangerously and engaging in sex.

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Like Det. Harris, Jensen had recently returned home to Lancaster County. Her own farm provided the inspiration for much of the setting of the Amish community, right down to the animal trails and snowstorms.

Kingdom Come carries a lot of similarities to David Lynch’s classic TV show, Twin Peaks. As the story of Jessica’s death unfolds, the body of a missing Amish girl is found miles away; the lives of these young girls, initially painted as sweet and innocent, start uncovering dark and disturbing revelations within and outside Lancaster’s Amish community. The quaint idyll dissolves under the weight of our cultures’ cruel realities.

Jensen draws her characters very well. Elizabeth Harris is written as Jensen herself, embittered by the recent tragedies in her life, she’s a snarky, sharp-witted voice, always quick to outpace her co-workers and counter the sexist expectations of the culture she inhabits. She and her co-workers, like her boss Grady, share a close rapport, which contributes a sense of humor to the novel and helps lighten the dark events they’re investigating. Elizabeth, too, falls for one of the Amish — a hunk of a man named Ezra who’s battling his own demons and on the verge of leaving the Amish way of life. Their relationship is, to put it bluntly, adorable, and the romance between their personalities feels genuine and touching on its own. In the context of the mystery, however, the romance feels out of place, and it leaps ahead over Ezra’s attractive body and Elizabeth’s devotion to the case to be shockingly unprofessional and poorly-paced. I loved these two together, but their relationship lacked definition and clashes with the narrative’s short length.

Also, while the mystery is compelling and well-written, at roughly the two-thirds point, I felt like the entire investigative team gave up in the face of overwhelming evidence, and performed leaps in logic in order to avoid investigating, discussing, or acknowledging in any way a conclusion that was all too obvious. The villain was clear by this point — though a few more twists are still to come! — and it felt like Harris and Grady disregarded good evidence as bad, and instead took bad evidence as good, which only padded out the length of the investigation and gave more narrative time to the romantic storyline.

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Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993) was Jensen’s first foray as lead designer and writer for her own project. Like Kingdom Come, most of her game projects have packaged clever mysteries under a wealth of research.

The mystery is benefited by Jensen’s background in the video game industry. As part of Sierra On-Line in the ’90s, she became known for the Gabriel Knight series of point-and-click adventures — a series which was defined by a breadth of research on the parts of Jensen, Gabriel Knight, and the players themselves, in order to uncover complex conspiracies mired in exotic cultural and social histories. Jensen pays her respect to the Amish community with Kingdom Come, using her research to paint the community as they are. By definition, it’s always from an outsider’s perspective, but a respectful one that avoids condescension or cultural appropriation.

Kingdom Come carries with it many issues — unusual pacing, a dichotomy between characters’ logic and actions, and a romantic angle that sometimes gets awkward — but it’s the best kind of brain candy. The lead characters all shine with personality, the rural community of Lancaster County brings with it a warm sense of nostalgia for simpler times (despite the falsity of such feelings), and the mystery proves mostly compelling.  Once the mystery was solved, Lancaster Co. was hard to leave behind, and I can’t wait to see where the series and characters go next.

Kingdom Come is available in both e-book and paperback editions via Amazon.

7 / 10

Jane Jensen has been developing story-driven adventure games since Sierra On-Line championed the genre throughout the ’90s. She’s best-known for her trilogy of mystery adventures around the character of Gabriel Knight, including Sins of the Fathers (1993), the Beast Within (1995), and Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned (1999). She’s recently returned to the field with games like Gray Matter (2010) and Moebius (2014). Her fiction includes two novelizations of her Gabriel Knight games, as well as Judgment Day (1999), Dante’s Equation (2003), Kingdom Come and its sequel, In the Land of Milk and Honey (2016), as well as over 20 male/male romance stories under the pen name, Eli Easton.

 

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