Published in 2007 under the Hard Case Crime line, Max Allan Collins’ Deadly Beloved is hyped as the “First Ever Ms. Tree Novel.” For those readers familiar with the hard-boiled femme detective from her early eighties appearances as a comic book series character done by Collins in collaboration with artist Terry Beatty the results are decidedly mixed as Beloved proves to be less an original story and more a reworking of the first two black-and-white graphic novels.
Best to think of the book as a pulp variation on the current Hollywoodizations of superhero comics, perhaps: given the opportunity to retell his heroine’s origin story, Collins tweaks the details, fiddling with the timeline and pulling in characters who didn’t appear until later in the series, changing some plot elements. The original “Ms. Tree” stories appeared in serialized form and, in retrospect, read that way. Collins’ prose version attempts to solidify his story by telling the bulk of it in a psychiatrist’s office. The approach doesn’t fully work in large part because we know very quickly that there’s something odd about the shrink’s willingness to let our heroine natter on past the allotted one-hour appointment.
For those unfamiliar with the character Ms. Michael Tree is an ex-cop turned Windy City p.i. whose detective husband, also named Mike (in an obvious tribute to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer), was murdered the night of their wedding. Set “a year or so” after his death, Beloved sets Michael on a case that’ll lead to the Event Planner responsible for male Michael Tree’s assassination. Ms. Tree’s case ostensibly concerns a schizophrenic woman who’s been manipulated into murdering her financier husband, but as she delves deeper into it, the detective learns that many of her late husband’s acquaintances and former partners have their own secrets. One revelation from the graphic novels that Collins eliminates, however: that Mr. Tree had a first wife and son — not a bad omission since its inclusion would’ve muddied up the storyline.
In the pursuit of truth, our heroine comes up against the requisite gangsters, thugs and hired killers. In one of the more memorable moments from the book (resurrected and reworked from the original graphic novel), Ms. Tree chases down a hypodermic wielding hitwoman and winds up plunges the needle into her leg, threatening to use it to subdue her. A suitably tough moment for our hard-bitten protagonist.
That said, Collins’ pulp debut for his groundbreaking comic book detective doesn’t prove to be as Hard Case edgy as many of the better entries in this paperback line. You keep waiting for Collins to get meaner in the manner of his idol Spillane, but it never happens. Some of the sequences just sit there — like a confrontation between Ms. Tree and the daughter of a Chi-Town mobster — without leading to an ultimate pay-off. Perhaps Collins was saving it for a second book, but to the best of my knowledge, no follow-up to Deadly Beloved has been written.
Though the writer discusses repackaging the original comics from where the character originally sprung, at this writing the only collections of the graphic novel sources for Deadly Beloved remain out of print. That’s too bad: though the original early tales have their clunky moments — the work of two Midwestern mystery fanboys still finding their way in the comic book format — they hold up as precursors to contemporary noir crime comics. Certainly better than this retelling, which efficiently reconstructs the action but never fully recreates its heroine’s pissed-off voice.