Strip For Murder Paperback – May 6 2008
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From the Back Cover
Colorful characters with murderous motives populate this illustrated mystery, which unfolds during the Broadway season of 1953. Former striptease artist Maggie Starr continues "stripping" by distributing comic strips through her late husband's newspaper syndicate. When the heated rivalry between a pair of her cartoonists ends in homicide, Maggie and her stepson, Jack, turn detective. Together they seek the killer among a rogues' gallery of loan sharks, jealous husbands, bitter artists, and other suspects.
Author Max Allan Collins was acclaimed by Mickey Spillane himself as "a terrific writer," and this fast-paced romp through a flavorful era in comic strip history is enriched by Terry Beatty's atmospheric illustrations.
Dover (2015) republication of the edition originally published by the Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 2008.
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About the Author
Max Allan Collins was hailed in 2004 by Publisher's Weekly as "a new breed of writer." A frequent Mystery Writers of America "Edgar" nominee, he has earned an unprecedented fifteen Private Eye Writers of America "Shamus" nominations for his historical thrillers, winning for his Nathan Heller novels, True Detective (1983) and Stolen Away (1991).
His graphic novel Road to Perdition is the basis of the Academy Award-winning film starring Tom Hanks, directed by Sam Mendes. His many comics credits include the syndicated strip "Dick Tracy"; his own "Ms. Tree"; "Batman"; and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, based on the hit TV series for which he has also written video games, jigsaw puzzles, and a bestselling series of novels (for Pocket Books) that has sold over 1.5 copies in America alone.
He has been termed "the novelization king" by Entertainment Weekly, with tie-in books on the USA TODAY bestseller list nine times and the New York Times list twice. His movie novels include Saving Private Ryan, Windtalkers, Waterworld, I Love Trouble, Daylight, I Spy, U.S Marshals, Air Force One, Maverick, U-571, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King and The Pink Panther. He even wrote the prose version of the film script based on his own Road to Perdition. His TV tie-in work includes two NYPD Blue novels, a trio of DARK ANGEL books and the current BONES novel, Buried Deep.
An independent filmmaker in the midwest, he wrote and directed the Lifetime movie "Mommy" (1996) and a 1997 sequel, "Mommy's Day." He wrote "The Expert," a 1995 HBO World Premiere, and wrote and directed the innovative made-for-DVD feature, "Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market" (2000). "Shades of Noir" (2004), an anthology of his short films, includes his award-winning documentary, "Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane." Shooting on a feature film based on his acclaimed novel, The Last Quarry, began shooting in January 2007 from the author's screenplay.
His one-man show, "Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life," was nominated for an Edgar for Best Play of 2004 by the Mystery Writers of America; a film version, written and directed by Collins, received its world premiere in Rock Island, Illinois, in February 2006.
His other credits include film criticism, short fiction, songwriting, trading-card sets. His non-fiction work has received many honors, with his coffee-table book The History of Mystery receiving nominations for every major mystery awards and his recent Men's Adventure Magazines winning the Anthony Award.
Collins lives in Muscatine, Iowa, with his wife, writer Barbara Collins; they have collaborated on three novels and numerous short stories. Their son Nathan graduated in 2005 with majors in computer science and Japanese at the University of Iowa in nearby Iowa City, and has just returned from taking a year of post-graduate studies in Japan.
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Things heat up when Fizer is found dead in his Waldorf-Astoria residential suite. It is staged as a suicide, and poorly at that; Fizer is right handed, but the gun is in his left, and the suicide note is a comics-style inked affair (making handwriting analysis useless). The obvious suspect is Rapp, but Jack is skeptical and with his "troubleshooter" fedora firmly in place, his private eye license in his back pocket, he starts his own investigation.
Strip for Murder is cleverly plotted, humorous--tongue firmly in cheek from beginning to end--whodunit with a twist that needs reading for believing. It is heavy on dialogue, in a good way, and the descriptions of 1950's New York, Broadway in particular, and the syndication business are great fun. The prose is spirited in a smooth and whimsical manner--
"Maybe ten seconds later, Maggie stuck her head in; more than her head, the uppermost, most exposed part of her. Very distracting neckline, that red gown."
Even more distracting, Maggie is his widowed step-mother, and President of Starr Syndicates. His boss, you could say. The characters--from Maggie to Hal Rapp to a Police Captain named Chandler--are charmingly eccentric and make a compelling juxtaposition to Jack's hardboiled tendencies. A relationship that generates more humor than black eyes.
On Halloween night, shortly after a party at Rapp's apartment, Fizer is found dead in his own room -- an apparent suicide but with painfully obvious signs pointing to Rapp as a murderer. Rapp asks Jack and Maggie Starr for help. Maggie runs the Starr Newspaper Syndication Company, and her stepson Jack is a private investigator "with one client: the Starr Syndicate." (Maggie is a former ecdysiast only 10 years Jack's senior -- a situation that is a constant source of Oedipal-incest jokes at Jack's expense.)
Rapp has offered his new strip, Lean Jean, to the Starrs, so they are very invested in keeping him out of jail -- especially since it looks like he is being framed. Jack takes on the case, hoping to remove the frame from Rapp before Captain Pat Chandler can nail it on tight.
Though Strip for Murder has some basis in history, author Max Allan Collins plays around with the facts here more than with his other historical-mystery novels, which usually hew closely to the facts with just a fictional character thrown in.
In fact, in this case, even the main participants' names have been fictionalized right along with the timeline of events and the characters' relationships, though their real-life counterparts can easily be discovered with a little research. Collins gives them names that aren't obvious caricatures, but realistic names in the style of the real ones. (Even the fictional characters in the musical get this treatment, like turning Daisy Mae into Sunflower Sue.)
Artist Terry Beatty, Collins's collaborator on various comic projects, including Ms. Tree, serves up era-appropriate comics-style drawings at the beginning of each chapter, and also adds a cute feature illustrating the motives, means, and opportunities of all the suspects just prior to the denouement.
Beatty's illustrations do a lot to keep the reader immersed in the world of comics, because once you've seen his renderings of the characters, it's impossible to imagine them any other way. Even with his work isn't on the page, it's still there in the mind's eye. So, though Collins likely had real humans in mind when he created these characters, I had Beatty's renderings in mine while reading Strip for Murder, which gave it a surprising "graphic novel" quality uncommon in a prose volume.
The characters are as two-dimensional as the illustrations -- but that may be intentional given the milieu (Collins did write Dick Tracy for 15 years, and his lengthy experience provides fodder for some very welcome comics-business in-jokes). What's important is that Strip for Murder gives a remarkable snapshot of Manhattan in the 1950s and a mystery solution that is as surprising as it is satisfying.
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.
I have to admit, I enjoyed the history revealed in the first book a lot more than I did in this one. Strip For Murder focuses on the real-life rivalry of comic strip creators Al Capp and Ham Fisher, but expands upon that history fictionally. However, where the first novel had a lot of interesting stuff that spun out of the main mystery, the history revealed in this one grew tighter and tighter with little branching out.
Also, the subject matter got really dark quick. The rivalry between Rapp and Fizer (the fictionalized versions of the two men) just drops deeper and deeper into a morass of wickedness to the point that there's no one for Jack and Maggie to truly save except themselves.
The mystery, since it's based on two actual people and is grounded in real events, doesn't work too well as a puzzle either. I had it all figured out before I got there, so reading through the chapters was more or less like simply connecting the pieces.
The book is a good read. Everything Max Allan Collins has written has been something I've enjoyed. Reading about the coming federal crackdown on comics and comic strips has whetted my appetite for the third novel in the series: Seduction of the Innocent, named after the book by Fredric Wertham that condemned comic books and gave rise to the Comics Code Authority.