It took the better part of five years, along with the intervention of Hard Case Crime, for us finally to see this third title in Max Allan Collins’ Jack and Maggie Starr mystery trilogy, all based upon incidents in comics history. Fortunately, it was worth the wait, especially since SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT recalls events that nearly destroyed the entire comics medium.
The setting is New York in the 1950s. Jack Starr is vice president of the Starr Syndicate, a comic-strip syndication company owned by his stepmother (and former renowned stripper), Maggie. Jack is the all-around troubleshooter for the company; a job that, among other things, requires him to keep his NYC P.I. license active.
The newly emerging medium of inexpensive comic books — or “funny books” as they are often called — is becoming a lucrative business. Not surprisingly, Starr Syndicate is getting more involved in creating them and making sure they are easily found at newsstands across the country.
Then, in 1954, noted psychiatrist Dr. Werner Frederick publishes a study that links juvenile delinquency and other violent and deviant behavior to the comic books. His book is quickly excerpted in national magazines, becomes the topic of radio and TV talk shows, and suddenly threatens the entire comics industry.
Maggie devises a way to employ Dr. Frederick and thereby protect the comics that are her business. But soon after Dr. Frederick agrees to the job, he is found dead in his swanky Manhattan hotel suite. Jack knows there is no shortage of murder suspects, especially among the many writers and artists who wanted to see the doc dead. Yet who among them was twisted enough to actually kill the man?
Anyone familiar with the history of comic books knows that the title of this new novel is taken from the 1954 book written by Dr. Fredric Wertham that blamed most teenaged violence and antisocial behavior on comic books, especially those published at the time by EC Comics. (Those unfamiliar should immediately seek out the 2008 nonfiction book, THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE: THE GREAT COMIC-BOOK SQUARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA by David Hajdu, one of several sources recommended by Collins in his “Tip of the Fedora” afterword.)
Yet, as Collins insists, while some of the events actually took place (most notably the congressional hearings on the adverse effects of comic books), his Dr. Frederick and the rest of the players in the novel are fictional. While the names of a few actual people are occasionally dropped, the characters in this series do not interact with these people — as they do in the author’s Nate Heller and other historical crime series.
Still, as usual, Collins expertly and effectively re-creates the period and ambience of New York in the ’50s while presenting a classically hard-boiled whodunit murder mystery. The locations, fashions, pop-culture references and especially Jack’s narration are all dead-on accurate and evocative.
Further enhancing the atmosphere is Glen Orbik’s color cover illustration and, most especially, the several black-and-white drawings by Terry Beatty recalling the unmistakable EC style. These begin each chapter and are included near the novel’s conclusion in an Ellery Queen-like challenge to the reader to solve the mystery.
Ironically, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT appears at the same time as a NEW YORK TIMES article about a recent university study that revealed serious flaws in Wertham’s screed, concluding that his findings were manipulated and compromised.
Is this vindication — especially considering that comic books still thrive to this day and are currently the basis for some of the most popular and successful movies?
Perhaps. Yet Collins’ wonderfully entertaining novel also should be seen as a cautionary tale, reminding us that any popular medium is threatened with sudden elimination by various “defenders of decency” if we don’t watch out. —Alan Cranis