A KILLING IN COMICS by Max Allan Collins
Max Allan Collins’s A Killing in Comics is both well-researched and a labor of love that’s masquerading as a mystery novel. Set in 1948, back in the days when the military was returning from World War II and the usual fiction heroes in comics and the pulps were transitioning to harder-edged fare, the novel is a fun, sort of hardboiled romp.To an accomplished comics fan, and I admit to my geek factor and claim that title, Collins’s portrayal of the industry tensions going on at the time was dead on. Wonder Man is really Superman, and the problems Siegel and Schuster had over trying to claim the rights to their greatest creation is true, and sad. But, as Collins points out, that was the way business operated in those days.
Batwing is, of course, Batman. And that tale offers up yet another depressing tale of a partnership where one partner took advantage of another. Amazonia is Wonder Woman.
I have to admit to distraction during the novel, so I wasn’t completely focused on keeping up with the clues. Most of the time I was relating my comics knowledge to the story and how Collins wove in the many details. Richard Lupoff and Don Thompson’s All In Color For A Dime is an excellent resource to go along with this novel. Reading it before or after Collins’s book is recommended for deeper enjoyment of everything that was going on at this time.
In the opening chapter of the novel, Donny Harrison, the publisher of Americana Comics, ends up dead at his own fiftieth birthday party while dressed in a colorful Wonder Man outfit. There are suspects aplenty. The two guys who invented Wonder Man are on hand and pretty upset about getting their own invention yanked away from them. Batwing’s creator has a way of beating his contract and getting his contract annulled so he can get control of his character back.
But the birthday party is being held at Harrison’s mistress’s apartment with Harrison’s wife in attendance. There are two more instant suspects.
The hero of the mystery is Jack Starr, a licensed private eye who works for Starr Syndicate, the company his father created. The syndicate is currently headed up by Maggie Starr, Jack’s stepmother who was an ex-stripper and is also the smartest woman Jack knows.
I liked the breezy way Collins unveiled the story in Jack’s first-person narrative. I was immediately reminded of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries with the way Jack worked for Maggie and she refused to leave syndicate headquarter.
Collins makes all the familiar moves of the hardboiled novel, including getting on the wrong side of the cops and the gangsters. While this is welcome in some respects, some it just seemed too familiar. Not hackneyed, but definitely in the old neighborhood of this kind of mystery.
I read the book in a couple of sittings and had a good time. The mystery was well planned, the research well executed, and the dialogue – most of the time – crackled. The time period was a welcome treat to the read.
I don’t know how Collins could do any more books about Jack and Maggie Star, but I’d definitely read them if any more are forthcoming. I liked the characters, and getting to see Jack and Maggie back in action would be great.