Fans who admire Collins's superb Nate Heller series for its ingenious, innovative and well-researched solutions to historical mysteries like the Black Dahlia murder (Angel in Black) and Amelia Earhart's disappearance (Flying Blind) will find this bland, broadly sketched whodunit several notches below the author's best work. The action takes place in 1948 Manhattan, where Donny Harrison, publisher of Americana Comics, gets impaled on a huge cake knife at his 50th birthday party, and Jack Starr, troubleshooter for a newspaper syndicate, investigates the many who wished Harrison dead. The premise—setting a murder mystery among the legends who created the first iconic comic book heroes, represented here as Wonder Guy and Batwing (thinly disguised versions of Superman and Batman)—is promising, but instead of a thoughtful and insightful exploration of that idea, Collins settles for near parody. Terry Beatty (Batman) contributes tongue-in-cheek, retro comic art throughout. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
A Killing in Comicsby Max Allan Collins
In Manhattan of 1948, a famous former striptease artist named Maggie Starr runs her late husband's newspaper syndicate, distributing the superhero comic Wonder Guy. But when the cartoon's publisher winds up dead, Maggie hunts for the killer among a cast of cartoonists, wives and mistresses, and minions of a different sort of syndicate — a crew of suspects with motives that are far from super-heroic.
Hailed by Mickey Spillane as "a terrific writer," and by Publishers Weekly as "the master of true-crime fiction," author Max Allan Collins is the creator of the bestselling graphic novel Road to Perdition. Artist Terry Beatty is the co-creator with Max Allan Collins of the long-running private-eye series, Ms. Tree. Their other collaborations include Mike Mist, Mickey Spillane's Mike Danger, and Johnny Dynamite.
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A Killing in Comics
By Max Allan Collins, Terry Beatty
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Max Allan Collins
All rights reserved.
YOU'LL BELIEVE A MAN CAN DIE!
The fat man in the blue cape and red tights and blue boots was sweating.
His brow, balding back to yesterday, was beaded, his upper lip pearled, the damp circles under his arms the size of garbage-can lids and every bit as fragrant. Everybody overlooked it. This was, after all, his birthday — Donny Harrison — and nobody wanted to risk being rude ... except of course Donny Harrison.
He was the boss.
He was the wonder guy behind Wonder Guy, the comic-book sensation that had put Americana Comics on top back in '38. Every kid in America would have recognized that costume with its big white W sewn center-chest, although five-foot-eight, two-hundred-eighty-pound Donny Harrison's physique hardly matched their hero's, nor would their hero likely have a glass of bourbon in one paw and a Cuban cigar in the other.
Wonder Guy — by day mild-mannered radio reporter Ron Benson — was a clean-cut superhuman from the planet Crylon. He could fly, he could bend steel with his bare hands, he could bounce the bad guys' bullets back at them just by sticking his chest out. Every boy in America (and quite a few men) harbored fantasies of being a real-life Wonder Guy.
But Donny had no such fantasies. In his mind, he was a true wonder guy — the small-time publisher/distributor of girlie mags who had slapped together a handful of rejected comic-strip samples as a cheap booklet that had, like Wonder Guy from a rooftop, taken off. That two kids from Des Moines, Iowa, had created Wonder Guy meant little to him. He was the visionary who published it, and whose wining and dining of regional wholesale distributors had made Wonder Guy a household name.
Watching Donny thread clumsily through the cocktail party — a mix of his friends and enemies from Americana Comics as well as assorted representatives of newspapers, magazines, local theaters and fashionable shops — was a study in absurdity. Not that the crowd was poshly attired — this was a late-afternoon fete attended mostly by business people before heading home. My tan tropical worsted and lighter tan shirt with blue-and-brown patterned tie was fairly typical, even if my brown rubber-soled moccasins were a fashion step nobody else in the room had taken.
And I was probably the only attendee not taking full advantage of the open bar. I was having rum and Coke, minus the rum. I'd been on the wagon for five years and had no intention of falling off on the occasion of Donny Harrison's fiftieth birthday.
This was Wednesday, late afternoon, in the suite of Donny's executive secretary, Harriet "Honey" Daily. She was the best-looking woman in the place, and perhaps it was no surprise she found her way through the blue fog of tobacco smoke over to the best-looking man, a six-footer with chiseled features, dark blue eyes and dark brown hair (easy on the hair tonic), drinking rum and Coke, minus the rum.
"It's too bad," she said.
She was a striking blonde in her midthirties, her hair shoulder-length but pulled back off her heart-shaped face to better frame the apple cheeks, big china blue eyes, perfect pug nose, full red-lipsticked lips and gently cleft chin. The coral crepe dress was simple but for the white scroll embroidery on her shoulders right up to the keyhole, bow-trimmed neckline. The lines of it didn't hide her curves but didn't shout about them, either.
"What's too bad?" I asked.
She sipped her martini. "That Donny's such an obnoxious drunk. He really can be quite charming, you know."
"I've managed to miss that, all these years."
She eyed me, the full lips pursing in a wry kiss. "And we've managed never to meet, somehow. But you're Jack Starr, all right."
"And you're Miss Daily."
"This is so sudden."
She laughed just a little; it was all my quip deserved. "No, I mean, please call me 'Honey.' All my friends do."
I glanced around at the little cliques in the spacious suite's living room, a modern study in coral and emerald leather furniture and all-glass tables on fluffy white carpet. A white baby grand in the adjacent dining room, over by a window on the city, was getting its ivories tinkled by a colored jazz pianist in a white dinner jacket who I recognized from the hotel's Blue Room. Cole Porter tunes, mostly.
"Do your friends," I asked lightly, making sure to attach a smile, "include Mrs. Harrison?"
Mrs. Harrison was indeed present, currently talking to her husband's business partner, Louis Cohn, vice president and chief accountant of the funny-book firm. Mrs. Harrison was a stout woman with a round pleasant face, almost pretty; but she had done herself no favor picking out that floral tent she was bivouacked in and her white hat looked like a bottle cap. She was holding a martini, stiffly, as if it might drink her, if she weren't so very careful.
Since Honey Daily was Donny Harrison's mistress — her title of executive secretary was essentially honorary, since nobody at Americana Comics had seen her at the office since that first six months in 1940 when she really had been Donny's secretary — you might think I'd get slapped for such a rude remark. Or maybe my hostess would just glare and storm away.
But Honey Dailey was if anything not predictable. She was one of these sophisticated women you hear so much about but rarely meet, even in Manhattan.
She said, "You've got cheek, Mr. Starr."
"You got your share of cheeks, too ... Honey. And I'm not complaining."
She laughed gently. Sipped more martini. "Mrs. Harrison chooses to accept the pretense that I'm her husband's secretary. Everyone else has quietly agreed not to make an issue of it."
Despite this being afternoon, the pianist was having at "Night and Day."
I arched an eyebrow. "But does Donny really have to rub his wife's face in it? I mean, even when she was your age, you could have made her look like a sofa."
"Especially in that dress," she said, with a smirk that should have made me hate her.
Instead I was thinking about her various cheeks again.
"What the hell," I said. "How many fiftieth birthdays does a guy get?"
Wonder Guy Donny was across the room, putting his arm around somebody else's wife and grinning in the poor woman's face.
Honey said, "Donny doesn't drink around me."
This seemed slightly out of nowhere. But I managed, "Oh really?"
Surely cocktail repartee, particularly with jazz pianists noodling Cole Porter in the background, should be sharper than "Oh really"; yet that's all I had.
But she didn't needle me. Just said, "He's a sweetheart, around home."
Apparently "home" was this coral-and-emerald suite at the Waldorf.
She turned the big light blue eyes on me and her eyelashes fluttered. I wondered for a moment if it was natural or an affection; then I decided I didn't care.
"I'd like to get to know you," she said.
"What would Donny say?"
"I'm not slipping the key to my suite in your pocket or anything."
That got a little laugh, more than it merited. "I've watched you ..."
One corner of her mouth turned up. "Something like that. It's just that ... well, you're the topic of conversation, time to time."
I sipped my rum and Coke, minus the rum. "Am I now? Is it my good looks or my rapier wit?"
"They haven't come up, your looks and your wit."
I can do both "Oh" and "Ah," you see. For years I was on the short list for the Algonquin Round Table.
She traded her empty martini glass for a full one on a tray a uniformed Waldorf waitress was gliding by with. Across the room Donny was doing the same, except his other hand was on the waitress's rump.
"But I have noticed them," she said. And sipped. "Your good looks."
"And my wit."
"That, too." She cocked her head, looked around the room.
"Where is your stepmother?"
"Not here, I'm afraid."
"Pity. I would have loved to meet her."
"I'm afraid she's at the office."
Her shrug was a little studied. "I would have thought she'd be here ... that she'd be one of those flamboyant, bigger-than-life people. Filling up a room like this without even trying."
"Well," Iadmitted, "she would if she were here. But she's in one of her reclusive phases. Afraid I'm the sole emissary of the Starr Syndicate."
Honey frowned and managed not to produce any wrinkles, all eyes and mouth; impressive. "What do you mean, reclusive phase?"
"It's kind of personal."
"Personal for her, or you ?"
"... She's a little on the vain side. When she thinks she's too overweight to be seen in public, she hibernates."
I'd said too much. I leaned closer. "Listen, she hasn't porked up or anything. She's probably twenty pounds over what she describes as her 'fighting weight,' and if she were here, she'd still be the best-looking woman in the room. Second best."
Honey didn't pursue that, but the baby blues had a twinkle when she asked, "Your father was in business with Donny, wasn't he?"
I nodded. "The major had a printing concern with both Donny and Louis. Started out together printing Yiddish newspapers and worked their way all the way up the ladder to racing forms and smut."
"Well ... sleaze, anyway. I wonder how many parents around the country know the publisher of Wonder Guy Comics started out shilling nudie pies of showgirls and strippers."
She studied me, her mouth amused but her eyes serious.
One of the cliques, over near the bar (predictably), was strictly cartoonists — the creators of Wonder Guy, writer Harry Spiegel and artist Moe Shulman, and artist Rod Krane, creator of the other big Americana Comics success, Batwing, a sort of modern-day Zorro with pointy ears.
Businesslike in a dark suit and dark blue tie, Harry was a little guy with a pie-pan face, gesticulating and loud and laughing too much; Moe was a head bigger, in a slept-in-looking brown suit and brown tie, with a big oblong head and glasses so thick they made his little eyes seem normal size. Krane was in between in height but seemed to loom over both men, a confident, dark-eyed guy with sharp, handsome features in a sharp, handsome dark gray Brooks Brothers with black and gray tie on a gray shirt. He was smoking a cigarette in a holder. Would I kid you?
We'd both been working on our drinks for a few seconds, just lolling in the chatter and clink and smoke and jazzy piano, when I swung my attention back to Honey because she had asked, "Major?"
"You refer to your father as 'the major'?"
I laughed, once. "Yeah, well ... we weren't real close. Everybody called Simon Starr the major. He was a major in the first war, and a major character in life — made Donny look like a wallflower."
She laughed, once. "Well ... he must have been a good-looking man. Or did you get your looks from your mother?"
"He was short and fat. Mom was a showgirl. You can work that out yourself."
Her smile had a warmth, now. "Do you mind another personal question?"
I shrugged. "Sure. I was first to get cheeky, wasn't I? Fire away."
"How many times was your father married?"
I held my fingers up in the Boy Scout salute. "Three. My mother died bringing me into the world. It's up to the world whether that was a fair trade."
"Oh, I'm sorry...."
"It was twenty-eight years ago. I'm pretty well over it. I remember his second wife, vaguely. She was a star in George White's Broadway Scandals of '37. Then there was a Hollywood scandal in '39, when she and a married cowboy actor got roped in a motel by a divorce dick with a flash camera."
She said, "Oh, I'm sorry," again, but was laughing a little this time. "Was your ... your mother a star?"
"No. She was in the Follies of '28 or '29 or something. Chorus gal — second from the end. Very pretty, though. Imet her sister, my aunt-a housewife in Ohio. If my mother was like her, my dad did all right."
Honey had been building up to something. "Your father ... the major ... he married only showgirls, then."
"That's right. Same kind of talent he and Donny and Louie were putting in their Spicy Models magazine. Just seemed to be the circle he was moving in. Of course marrying Maggie Starr was moving up in the world."
Honey nodded. "She was a real star ... even in the movies, wasn't she?"
"Maggie made a few flicks."
She cocked her head, RCA Victor doggie-style. "But I'm confused about something."
"I am here but to clarify."
"Wasn't her name already Starr when she married your father?"
"It was indeed. Her stage name, anyway. Her real last name is Spillman. But already having Starr on all her luggage and so on was a plus in the deal, I suppose."
She had finally gotten around to eating the olive off the toothpick in her latest martini. It was fun to watch.
Then she said, with a delicacy that was almost too much, "What's it like, having Maggie Starr for a stepmorher?"
"I don't think of her that way," I said, truthfully.
"But she's ... beautiful. Probably, next to Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous ... famous ..."
"If you're trying to remember the polite word, it's ecdysiast. But regular joes like me just say stripper."
She shook her head and the blonde locks shimmered under the suite's subdued lighting. "That doesn't do her justice, does it? She spoofed striptease. Made a joke out of it."
"Yeah, but she still took her clothes off. Otherwise Minksy wouldn't've paid her."
The big blue eyes narrowed; the long lashes quivered as she thought about that. Then she asked, "She's stopped, hasn't she?"
"Yes. When she inherited the family business, that was the end of one kind of stripping ... and the beginning of another."
Her laughter tinkled, counterpointing the piano player's tinkling of "I Get a Kick Out of You." "You mean, she syndicates comic strips."
"That's right. She still considers herself a stripper of sorts."
"She sounds wonderful."
"She can be."
"That sounds ... guarded."
"Well ... she is my boss."
The eyes narrowed again. "Why didn't your father put you in charge of the business?"
"Yeah, why didn't he? ... I need to freshen my drink. Care to come along?"
She took my arm and accompanied me. We were halfway to the little portable bar the Waldorf had provided, along with a uniformed bartender, when Donny trundled up, his Wonder Guy costume soaking with sweat. He was between cigars and bourbons, for which small blessing I was grateful.
He grinned at me, his bulging features friendly but the hand he laid on my shoulder squeezing a little too hard. "You ain't trying to steal my private secretary, are ya, kid?"
"No, Donny. I was just getting to know her. We've never met. Somehow she was never around the office when I dropped by."
He just smiled at that, flashing his big fake choppers. My God, he was perspiring, even for Donny. Then he whispered in my shell-like ear.
"You're not up to something, are you, kid?"
"Don't mean with Honey, here. You're not that dumb. I mean with the boys."
He meant Harry Spiegel and Moe Shulman.
"I don't follow you, Donny."
"Don't you and Maggie get cute, is all I'm saying."
I turned to look at him, close enough to kiss him, which I chose not to. "Maggie's gorgeous and I'm a handsome devil. Cute doesn't come into it."
That made him laugh; his breath was everything tobacco and booze could accomplish in one mouth. He patted my cheek, a little too hard to be affectionate.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he said with good-natured menace, and bounded off, cape flapping. He was heading toward the table with the big sheet cake and mints and nuts, like at a wedding. A spread of hors d'oeuvres was at another table in the dining room adjacent — Donny was feeling in a generous birthday mood.
At the bar I got a fresh glass of Coke on the rocks and Honey noticed I was more a Shirley Temple than martini kind of guy.
"You aren't on the job, are you?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well ... my understanding is, you're kind of a troubleshooter for the Starr Syndicate."
"My official title is vice president."
A single eyebrow rose. "I was thinking of your duties. If there's a lawsuit, or if one of the cartoonists or columnists gets in a jam, don't you ... step in?"
"You might say that."
Now both eyebrows hiked. Still no wrinkles. "Then you're not ... an editor or anything."
Excerpted from A Killing in Comics by Max Allan Collins, Terry Beatty. Copyright © 2007 Max Allan Collins. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Author Max Allan Collins, hailed by Publishers Weekly as "the master of true-crime fiction," is the creator of the bestselling graphic novel Road to Perdition.
Artist Terry Beatty is the co-creator with Max Allan Collins of the long-running private-eye series, Ms. Tree. Their other collaborations include Mike Mist, Mickey Spillane's Mike Danger, and Johnny Dynamite.
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