Strip for Murder is the second book in an enjoyable Max Allan Collins series that deserves a wider audience.
First introduced in A Killing in Comics, Jack Starr is a licensed P.I., a former Army MP and vice president of the Starr Syndicate, purveyor of fine comic strips, puzzles and columns in 1953 New York. Jack reports to Maggie Starr, his beautiful step-mother (herself a one-time stripper) who inherited the syndicate from her late husband.
In Strip for Murder, Jack and Maggie find themselves drawn into the bitter feud between two top cartoonists. When Sam Fizer, the creator of the Starr Syndicate’s most popular property, is found dead at his drawing board, suspicion falls on Hal Rapp, Sam’s chief competitor and former protégé. With a potential deal with Hal at stake, Jack wades through a sea of cartoonists, Broadway actors, gamblers, comedians and criminals on the trail of answers. Hal seems a likely candidate, but the scene of Sam’s death appears highly staged to Jack and Maggie. After some good old fashioned sleuthing, a gunfight with a masked thug and a steamy encounter with a not-so-grieving widow, Jack and Maggie ferret out the truth of Sam’s death.
No one does the neo-hardboiled detective story quite like Collins. He dropped his readers into a vividly drawn echo of New York City past, filled with lots of smart period details and some loving descriptions of the city at that time. The comic industry setting was a boon to Collins’s comic book following, but also gave Strip for Murder and the other entries in the series a distinctive feel. Collins populated the world with colorful characters, real people and colorful characters based on real people. His way with dialogue and careful plotting were on full display here. The mystery unfolded in a subtle, snaky fashion, with many potential suspects and plenty of twists, adding up to a brisk, satisfying ride.
Collins is an entertaining writer and his noir dialogue, presented with the wise-cracking narration by Jack, was first rate. Jack made for a winning focal point, an active, ingratiating presence that guided readers through the action with a lot of style and energy. Maggie also emerged as a strong presence, her intelligence and beauty receiving equal attention. Collins wrung maximum benefit out of the other characters assembled for Strip for Murder, often making strong impressions with limited page space. The glimpses into various entertainment worlds (Broadway, early TV and the mid-century newspaper business) were all well handled, adding some show biz glamour to the proceedings. Really, the only small quibble was some occasional political commentary that felt tacked on for no purpose. But that was minor and easily overlooked.
Strip for Murder also featured illustrations from veteran comic book pro Terry Beatty. Beatty created some entertaining period-appropriate panels to open each chapter. His work also was deployed in a few pages just before the climax to sum up the clues and suspects just before the big reveal. The images were crisp and clean, echoing the comic strip style of the period. It was a fun way to pay homage to the series’ inspiration and add some additional personality to the story.
Strip for Murder isn’t necessarily easy to get your hands on. But it’s worth grabbing, especially for fans of Collins’s work or for anyone interested in a witty, stylish homage to period detective fiction.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 23, 2015.