Monday, September 28, 2009

Deadly Beloved by Max Allan Collins (Ms. Tree) (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Any new Max Allan Collins novel is cause for celebration, especially one from Hard Case Crime, because they are revisiting his best characters from his earlier days. First, they reprinted the first two novels Collins ever published (featuring professional thief Nolan) in Two for the Money. The next year saw the telling of his professional hitman Quarry's "final" story in The Last Quarry, which was based in part on the short film "A Matter of Principal" (available in the DVD set Max Allan Collins's Black Box).

Deadly Beloved features yet another celebrated return, that of Ms. Michael Tree. What most people don't know is that Collins (along with artist Terry Beatty) is responsible for the longest-running private investigator comic book series. That it featured a female P.I. was even more ground-breaking, as Ms. Tree originated in 1980, before Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton came to fame with their girl gumshoes.

Deadly Beloved is the first all-prose novel to star Ms. Michael Tree, and it features cover art by Beatty in a nice combination of the usual Hard Case Crime motif and Beatty's own comic style (Ms. Tree's features have been softened considerably, for one thing). Ms. Tree has appeared in short stories — most notably "Inconvenience Store," which was adapted into the indie film Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market with Collins himself writing and directing (it is also available in the Black Box DVD set) — but this is her first long-form appearance.

Comics have been a large part of Collins's career: he wrote the daily Dick Tracy strip for fifteen years, and even Road to Perdition started out as a graphic novel. This is simply a warning for those who may be put off by the comic book–style character names in Deadly Beloved. They aren't quite Chester Gould–quality puns, but they're close. (If the Ms. Tree/mystery pun doesn't make you groan, you'll probably be fine.)

Past fans of the character and her adventures will notice immediately that a good portion of the back story that originally served as the impetus for Ms. Tree's exploits has been changed to suit this brand-new story, the murder of a philandering accountant by his jealous wife. But those coming to Deadly Beloved with little foreknowledge are in for a surprise: Ms. Tree is a hard-boiled woman with a heart as dark as any male private eye they've come into contact with before.

Not the shy, retiring type, she has no compunctions against putting a bullet into anyone who gets in her way. Fans of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series (Collins is completing Mickey Spillane's unfinished manuscripts) will find a kindred soul in Ms. Tree.

The only real downside of Deadly Beloved is in the way the story is told. Its visually related origins are very apparent, especially in the use of the "telling her story to her therapist" conceit, which is usually only successful in comics or movies. Collins makes it work for the most part, but the jumping back and forth from the actual story to the "outer" conversation was jarring. Still, Collins has included some of his leanest prose yet in Deadly Beloved — I guess writing for those little boxes has made him an expert at picking his words carefully for the greatest impact — and I look forward to more adventures from both Collins and Tree.


Evan Lewis said...

I have those first Ms. Tree comics around here somewhere. Amazing to see return in a novel, with a Beatty cover no less.

Craig Clarke said...

I only have the mass-market paperback collection I linked to. Those comics must look terrific!

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