Archive for Seduction of the Innocent

Comics Can Be Murder


Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Wait a minute, Max Allan Collins never wrote “The Seduction of the Innocent“! That was the infamous anti-comics screed by psychologist Fredric Wertham! Max Allan Collins is a mystery writer and the creator of the “Road to Perdition” graphic novel! What kinda funny business am I tryin’ to pull here?!?

Settle down, youngster. This is indeed a book by the prolific Collins, as part of his Jack and Maggie Starr series of mysteries. In this series, Maggie Starr is a former burlesque performer who inherited her late husband’s comics syndicate, and her stepson Jack Starr is a part-time private eye and veep of the company. The previous mysteries in this series (“A Killing in Comics” and “Strip for Murder,” neither of which I’ve read) were based on fictionalized versions of real comics creators — this one is no different.

It’s the 1950s, and comics have become big news for all the wrong reasons. Even though every kid in America (and a decent proportion of adults) is reading comic books, the Powers That Be have decided that comics are a corrupting influence, saturating their minds with violence and perversion through superhero comics, crime comics, and horror comics. Maggie and Jack run a syndicate for newspaper comic strips, but even they are feeling some of the heat, and it’s a lot worse for publishers and creators at the comic book companies. And just about all of them have a reason to hate Dr. Werner Frederick, the psychologist behind the attacks on comics. But does someone hate him enough to commit murder? Well, of course, they do. Now Jack has to track down the killer as quickly as possible to make sure the damaging publicity won’t prove equally fatal to the comics biz.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I used to be a complete mystery fanatic in my younger years, mostly Agatha Christie books in my teens, Raymond Chandler hardboiled detective novels in my 20s. And this novel was a nice, fun blend of my childhood love of mysteries and my more recent love of comics (That usually goes the other way around, doesn’t it?).

The characters are pretty keen. Jack and Maggie are both pretty appealing characters — Maggie is probably made more interesting because she’s used pretty sparingly in the story. Jack makes an interesting hero, too — he’s a fairly traditional hard-boiled detective — well, not too hard-boiled, I guess — he doesn’t drink, he’s not particularly over-violent, he’s got pretty modern sensibilities. But mixed in with that noir-style detective is a guy who’s part businessman and part comics afficianado. He’s not really a comics geek — he doesn’t collect comics or get very obsessive about the hobby. But he knows all the artists and writers and publishers and clearly appreciates what they do. He decorates his apartment with framed comic art. That combination of private eye and comics connoisseur makes for a hero who’s offbeat enough to be fun to read about.

Other characters? Well, the fun bit here is that they’re all fictional versions of people like Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein, Al Williamson, Charles Biro, Bob Wood, Tarpe Mills, and others. Some of them are a lot more fictionalized than others, and some of them act out actual events that their real-world counterparts took part in. EC Comics publisher Gaines’ disastrous testimony before Congress, in particular, is fairly cringe-inducing to read about in the novel because we comics fans know just how badly it all turned out.

Plot-wise? It’s a good solid mystery. It’s even got some elements of Agatha Christie’s drawing room mysteries, just because Frederick’s murder is so thoroughly unusual. All the potential suspects could’ve done it, and there are plenty of plot convolutions, twists, and guest villains to keep most readers guessing.

This isn’t a real long novel, and it reads fast anyway, so it’ll feel like you’re done with it in record time.

I thought it was a pretty cool story, and hey, any mystery that has someone putting Dr. Fredric Wertham on ice has gotta be good fun for comics fans. Go pick it up.

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