Sunday, August 3, 2008

Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins (a Jack and Maggie Starr mystery)

Manhattan, 1953 — Rehearsals are underway toward the opening night of the musical Tall Paul, based on the popular comic strip of the same name by Hal Rapp. Rapp's ex-employer (and chief rival), Mug O'Malley creator Sam Fizer, has threatened to sue, saying Rapp's characters were originally created by Fizer when Rapp was working under him on the O'Malley strip. To make matters worse, Fizer's estranged wife has been hired for a role in the musical.

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.

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