STRIP FOR MURDER
By Max Allan Collins
Illustrations by Terry Beatty
Dover Mystery Classic
Of all the ongoing series mystery writer Max Collins continues to juggle, while doing all the things we normal being do such eat, drink and sleep, my favorite is quickly becoming his Jack and Maggie Starr books. Being a comic book fan since the age of five, it’s only natural I’d appreciate a mystery series that involves American comic books during the Golden Age of the four-color little mags. It started with A Killing in Comics (May 2007) which I’ve not had the pleasure of reading yet and then later produced Strip for Murder (May 2008 and the subject of this review) and wrapped with Seduction of the Innocent (June 2013) which revolved around fictionalized version of Frederic Wertham’s crusade against comic books back in the 1950s. One of my personal favorites of Collins’ books.
The set up is a fun one. Maggie Starr was once a famous burlesque queen who married the Major, a World War One hero and widower. He owned Starr Syndicates which managed a group of highly profitable cartoon strips. When the Major died, Maggie inherited the business and helping her run it as a special security consultant is the Major’s son, Jack. Immediately one is reminded me of the classic boss-employee partnership between Rex Stout’s master detective Nero Wolfe and his witty, tough-guy legman chronicler, Archie Goodwin. Here it is Jack who tells the tales with tongue firmly in cheek. In fact Jack’s dialogue showcases some of the best lines Collins has ever put to paper; many so exaggerated as to be as cartoonish as the properties Starr Syndicate handles.
The banter between Jack, a healthy, handsome lad and his drop-dead gorgeous stepmother is one of the major attractions (pun intended) of these stories. Though it is made absolutely clear there is no risqué hanky-panky happening here. But don’t feel sorry for the lad, in the two books I’ve read thus far, he never lacks sexy feminine companionship. Whereas there’s plenty of adult foibles within the stories themselves and the world of early comics is proven to be as nasty and cutthroat as any other commercial venture in American history.
The crux of the plot deals with an on-going feud between two famous cartoonists, both with inflated egos, who despise each other for multiple past wrongs. When one of them is murdered, Starr Syndicate is in danger of losing its most profitable strip and so Maggie orders Jack to solve the mystery and help save the family business. Throughout the story, Collins offers up a parade of thinly disguised cartoonists most fans will easily recognize, in fact the feuding duo are thinly veiled versions of the men who created Lil’ Abner and Joe Palooka.
Now as entertained as I was throughout the book, I’m going to bet half my own readers here, especially those under thirty, don’t have the foggiest notion as to the two iconic characters I just mentioned. Thus the book, for the non-fan, is most likely going to be bothersome as most of the book’s appeal will fall flat. How can you truly enjoy the game if you don’t know who the players are?
Don’t get me wrong. Even with that handicap, Collins is too much a pro not to deliver a good mystery and always plays fair with the clues peppered throughout the course of the narrative. But what I would like to see is for him to take the series away from its limited comic-world settings and explore its true potential as a straight out mystery series starring two of the most enjoyable detectives ever to grace the printed page. In the end there’s a whole lot more to Maggie and Jack then just four flat colors.