Monday, May 28, 2007

A Killing in Comics - Max Allan Collins

A Killing in Comics
Max Allan Collins
Illustrations by Terry Beatty
Berkley Prime Crime


In 1948 Manhattan, Wonder Guy is the world’s greatest superhero; star of funny papers, comic books, and radio show. For Jack Starr, VP and resident troubleshooter of Starr Syndicate, this poses something of a visual disconnect. Because the man in the Wonder Guy costume at this party in a Waldorf suite is fifty, portly, balding, and sweating right through his wonder-suit. The guy in the suit is Donny Harrison, the birthday boy, and the suite belongs to his longtime mistress, Honey Dailey. Pretty nervy of him to throw the party in Honey’s suite and invite his wife, too. But that’s the kind of jerk Donny is. Or, was, once he topples over and impales himself on the knife before he can cut his cake.

Everyone assumes it was a heart attack, since he hadn’t looked well at all before his final nosedive. But his wife requests an autopsy and routine tests indicate that, while the knife might have hastened his death, it was poison that caused him to pass out in the first place. Who would have wanted to poison Donny? That would be pretty much anyone who ever knew him or did business with him. Donny ran Americana Comics, publisher of Wonder Guy. The creators of the comic, Harry Spiegel and Moe Shulman, naïve kids from someplace in Iowa, sold their rights to Wonder Guy for $138. That’s split between the two of them. They get nothing from merchandising, radio shows, or anything else. Just a salary for continuing the strip. But their ten-year contract term is up very soon, and they’re looking to make a much better deal. Maybe with Starr Syndicate.

And that’s where Jack comes in, again. His stepmother, Maggie Starr runs Starr Syndicate now that Jack’s father is gone. She was a burlesque dancer before she married Jack’s father, and she’s heard all the ‘stripper-turned-stripper’ jokes there are. A shrewd businesswoman, Maggie realizes that the creators of the strip are the most likely suspects, and wants Jack to look into the matter. Jack knows who to talk to, and how to talk to them; from the mistress, to the artists and writers, to the mob guys who belong to a whole different kind of syndicate.

No matter what time period Max Allan Collins writes about, he always manages to capture the essence of the era. The slang, the clothes, the social conventions, all combine to immerse the reader in late-40s New York. There are vintage-looking illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, and these add to the overall feel. I admit that I know next to nothing about comics, but that didn’t diminish my reading experience at all. While the author’s note tells me that many characters are based on, or are amalgams of, real people, no prior knowledge is required to enjoy this mystery, written in the style of the hard-boiled detective novel. I hope this is the first of many.

Rating: 8
May 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21365-0 (trade paperback)


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