Written by Max Allan Collins – As a writer of crime fiction, Max Allan Collins has many strings to his bow. The Quarry series of novels features a hardboiled antihero similar to Richard Stark’s Parker. His long running series about Chicago PI Nathan Heller is a multiple Shamus Award winner. His graphic novel Road to Perdition was the basis for the Tom Hanks movie of the same name. He’s an award-winning biographer of Mickey Spillane, and more recently Collins has been completing for publication a series of unfinished Mike Hammer novels, the most recent of which was Lady, Go Die! So the fact that his latest book brings together private eyes, historical crime fiction, and the comic industry bodes well indeed.
Jack Starr is the vice president of Starr Syndicate, a very successful business bringing stories from comic books into newspapers as comic strips. His boss is his step-mother, the beautiful Maggie, an ex-showgirl and stripper, now one of the most powerful people in comics publishing. But beauty and wealth don’t make her immune to trouble. There is a storm brewing for the comics industry. An opportunistic and egotistical psychiatrist, Dr Werner Frederick, has written a book condemning the funny pages entitled Ravage The Lambs. He claims there’s a link between the comics and juvenile delinquency. Local politicians, never ones to let a bandwagon pass, are getting in on the act, arranging a Congressional hearing to examine the links between comic books and violence.
Initially Starr’s job is damage limitation, making sure none of the talent, an erratic, emotional bunch at best, stay on their best behaviour. However when Dr Frederick is found hanged in his hotel suite it’s up to him to investigate the murder. Starr’s problem is that there are just too many suspects, and most of them work with him. From fellow publishers with drink problems and anti-social tendencies, to the New York gangsters involved in distribution, to the artists making the strips – they’re all either insecure or arrogant. Even the beautiful psychologist hired by Starr to ghost Dr Frederick’s syndicated agony aunt column. Starr has his work cut out getting to the bottom of things.
The author delivers a slick and professional job. His knowledge of the comic book world and the period the book is set in allows him to inject a wealth of historical fact into the narrative. For example, there really was a witch hunt against comics, led by one Dr Frederic Wertham, and his book was called Seduction of the Innocent. All this detail is used to build an authentic story, but Collins never lets it get in the way. As might be expected, he knows his way around the PI genre and he has Jack always ready to provide a witty quip or right hook as needed. There are enough thrills here to mean that readers can enjoy this book as a PI thriller, even if they are not as interested in the comics angle.
Not only is there the obligatory great cover I have come to expect from Hard Case Crime but each chapter is illustrated with a frame from regular collaborator Terry Beatty. My only complaint would be that Jack Starr is drawn pretty thin. Sure, we know he’s on the wagon and has an eye for the ladies, but we don’t get much more than that. Overall though, mixing comics and crime works very well here for Collins, and Seduction of the Innocent works for me too.
Hard Case Crime / Titan Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars