1954 was a very different time in the world of American Comics Books. A once extremely popular business was beginning to see it’s first downturn in its brief history. Horror and Crime comics were the kings of the hill but had come under scrutiny in the eyes of the government, so much so that there were televised public hearings to decide what do with the “comic book menace”. It stands out as a time of turmoil for all comic publishers. It’s also the perfect backdrop for a crime noir murder mystery.
For longtime comics fans who know their history, the title of this book, Seduction of the Innocent, evokes thoughts of one man, Dr. Fredric Wertham. Dr. Wertham was a psychiatrist who’s greatest achievements were in aiding in the civil rights movement of fifties and sixties. But those deeds will always be overshadowed by his famous book, also titled Seduction of the Innocent, that condemned Comic Books stating that they were corrupting America’s youth and leading to an increase in juvenile delinquency. In Max Allen Collins’ latest novel, we go back to this time and get to see an alternate history. One where the day after the famous hearings took place there was a murder that changed the landscape of these “comic book witch hunts”. Jack Starr, a man who has a hand in Starr publishing and also an investigator for the company, must look into the mysterious death of one of comics’ biggest detractors and with the help of his young and beautiful step mother, Maggie, must find the culprit of this killing before it does irreparable damage to the comic book and comic strip publishing business. But who could the killer be? It could be a publisher or artist who this detractor attacked. Or it might be a knife wielding kid who’s been transformed by the comic “smut” that he’s been exposed to. Or maybe a comic reader who believes he’s defending his favourite pass time. Either way, Jack must find the killer.
At the back of the book, Mr. Collins provides a short essay entitled “Tip of the Fedora” in which he explains that this novel cannot be seen as a historically accurate look back on the comic book trials of the fifties. Max admits to borrowing a lot of the locations and incidents from the era but has changed the players names and some of their personalities to fit his story. This is the third time that Jack and Maggie Collins have had to solve a murder in the world of comic books but this is the first to be released by Hard Case Crime. The previous adventures, released by another publisher, focused on other moments from the golden age of comics and also told stories askew from actual history. This story is a way of looking back at the time era without being a slave to events from it. The historical elements serve as a great launch point for classic tales of the hard boiled world of the private dick. After reading Seduction of the Innocent I would have to strongly agree.
This is the first “Jack and Maggie Starr” novel I have read. It’s actually the first novel I’ve read by Max Allan Collins. I know that that’s nothing to be proud of as Max has been revered in the world of comic books for his most famous work, Road to Perdition. Sadly, I have never gotten the chance to read that tale (I haven’t even seen the movie, in fact). So I came to this book with fresh, unbiased eyes, not knowing exactly what I would get when I cracked the spine. This book turned out to be everything I would ever want in a detective novel. It’s in time era where the gumshoe was at the top of his game. And the subject of this questionable murder is grounded in the world of comic publishing history, something that I have enjoyed researching over the years. It’s like this novel was made for me. The characters jump off the page and pull you into this time and place immediately. There’s no time to “get into” this book because you’re already there. Collins makes his world accessible to even the most fussy reader. Jack Starr is a guy you can get behind because he fits the traits you know to be true about private eye’s: He’s tough, he’s seen some crazy stuff in his day, he’s not afraid to step outside the law when he needs to and he lives by his own moral code. But even though he fits the m.o. of the detectives we know, he can still surprise you and that’s important. He’s familiar yet mysterious. He’s also pretty likeable which doesn’t hurt. Maggie, his partner in world of crime solving, is beautiful, classy and not to be messed with. They are great protagonists that a reader can instantly invest in knowing almost immediately that neither will try to pull the wool over their eyes. Which brings us to the other players in the book. Like I mentioned above, many of the characters (victims and suspects) are inspired by real people. EF Comics Publisher, Bob Price is based on EC Comics’ Bill Gaines. Artist Pete Pine is supposed to be Bob Wood. And Dr. Werner Frederick is an obvious stand in for Dr. Wertham. The list goes on. But as Collins stated himself at the back of the book, these are not exact representations of the actual men and women they are spoofing. The use of these characters lend an authenticity to the story that fans of Comic Book history will recognize and appreciate. At the same point, they in no way intrude upon the enjoyment of this novel by anyone who knows nothing about this history. It’s an added bonus for those in the know. And that’s what makes it so effective. This book is nothing if not accessible.
A nice added touch is the illustrations at the start of each chapter. Drawn by comic book legend Terry Beatty in the classic EC style, they set the perfect mood for this book. The kings of crime comics back in the day, the EC house style is one that automatically evokes the gritty underbelly that a portion of this novel lives in. What’s especially cool is the switch from novel to graphic novel for 2 pages before the final chapter. It does a great job of setting up the climax and also pays proper homage to the world of crime comics. Having never read a “Jack and Maggie Starr” novel before, I have no idea if this was done in the previous books. I just know that I like it and I think it works wonderfully here.
Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins hits stores tomorrow (Tuesday, February 19th). If you’re a fan of comic history or even if you’re just a fan of good crime noir, be sure to check out this book. It’s a fast read that’s jam-packed with tons of enjoyment. If you like good guys, bad guys, femme fatales and funny books, this one’s for you.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!