Collins’ Comics Whodunits

I’m kind of encroaching a bit on Greg Hatcher’s territory here, as he’s the resident expert on all things Max Allan Collins (and he’s our Hard Case Crime guy), but I really wanted to highlight a trilogy of books Collins wrote which I found absolutely delightful: his Jack and Maggie Starr murder mysteries.

These are very light-hearted, unlike the far grittier tone in Collins’ also excellent Quarry books.

Here’s the basic set-up:

First, it’s notable is that Jack and Maggie are not husband and wife nor brother and sister nor otherwise more conventionally related; they’re step-son and step-mother. However, Maggie is not much older than Jack – she’s a former stripper who was basically the trophy wife of Jack’s elderly and, by the time these stories take place, deceased father. Maggie took charge of the business, a newspaper syndicate that distributes comic strips and other media content, after her husband’s death and actually proved herself to be more than capable – in fact, it’s implied through Jack’s first-person narration in the books that she’s probably better at the job than his dad was.

The Starr Syndicate’s offices are close to Broadway in Manhattan, and the ground floor of the building is occupied by a restaurant, also owned by the company, called the Strip Joint – serving “the best strip steak in Manhattan.” The restaurant’s name is a bit of a double entendre, as it refers to both comic strips and strippers – all of the wait staff are former strippers who aged out of their profession (a case of Maggie watching out for her own), and the walls feature both old photographs of strippers and original comic strip art from the syndicate’s clients.

Jack, by the way, is the Starr Syndicate’s “vice president, chief troubleshooter and occasional bottle washer.” In these books, the troubleshooter aspect comes to the fore, as Jack is also a licensed private investigator. This does not mean that he does all of the crime solving, as he very much depends on Maggie’s help, even though she never actually leaves the building. Usually, she and Jack will discuss the particulars of the case and she’ll provide insights based on Jack’s findings. She sometimes invites the parties involved to her office for further discussions, which then lead to revelations or otherwise bring the case to a head. (I haven’t read any of Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, but apparently there’s some similarity between Jack and Maggie and the relationship between Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.)

Also, there’s a bit of a “will they, won’t they” vibe between Jack and Maggie running through all three novels. Like I said, the age difference isn’t that great, and Jack makes no secret of his admiration of Maggie, not only because she’s still a knockout although pushing middle age, but also because she’s a very canny businesswoman and simply a strong, intelligent and independent woman. (And he acknowledges that his complex feelings for his hot step-mom make him a bit uncomfortable.) There’s also a few places in the stories which hint that the admiration, and affection, may be mutual, i.e., that Maggie sees Jack as more than just her in-house detective and general gopher.

The stories take place from late 1940s through the early 1950s and they’re all very much steeped in topical events in the comics industry at the time. Jack and Maggie become involved because the main characters, all luminaries in the comics world, are usually either clients or prospective clients of their syndicate. And all three are romans à clef, i.e., many of the major characters are thinly disguised real-life people from the comics scene of that period.

The first installment, A Killing in Comics, involves the killing of the publisher of a comic hero called “Wonder Guy” (Superman, basically), and in the course of solving this mystery, Jack and Maggie learn all about the character’s troubled history and the shoddy treatment of his creators – who, in the book, are obvious stand-ins for Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster – as well as other figures in the early years of super-hero comics.

The second book, Strip for Murder, is loosely based on the real life feud between Ham Fisher (who created the Joe Palooka newspaper strip) and Al Capp (of Lil’ Abner fame). In this one, the analog for Fisher is found dead in an apparent suicide (a reference to the fact that Fisher actually did commit suicide), but it turns out the whole thing was staged.

The trilogy concludes with Seduction of the Innocent, and title pretty much gives away that this one deals with the whole comic-book scare of the early 1950s. Here, a would-be censor of all things comics, Werner Frederick, is killed before he is supposed to testify before the Senate.

And yes, as the images accompanying the post indicate, all three books have illustrations, by Terry Beatty, who often collaborates with Collins – most notably, he drew all of the Ms. Tree comics. Near the end of each book, Jack and Maggie always go over the suspects and what they know so far and this is done in comic book form.

Like I said above, even though these are murder mysteries, the tone is not overly serious, although they don’t fall into the trap of becoming farcical. Collins does a really good balancing act here. They are also very light and easy reads: despite the fact that all three have well over 250 pages each, these are books that can be pretty much be read in a single sitting (on, say, a lazy Sunday afternoon when the weather’s miserable and you’re snuggled up in bed or an easy chair, or if you’re on a long flight or train ride…)

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Collins

    I absolutely loved these books, too. I asked Collins if he would ever write anymore and he said sales would ultimately dictate if he did, though he had an idea for a mystery taking Jack and Maggie to Hollywood and focusing on George Reeves’ “suicide.”

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