The title to Max Allan Collins’ latest period detective novel will ring familiar to most readers of comic book history. Seduction of the Innocent (Hard Case Crime) shares its title with a notorious anti-comics screed written in the fifties by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Railing against the then prevalent crime and horror comics of the day – and not incidentally castigating superhero mainstays like Batman and Wonder Woman – Wertham linked comics consumption to juvenile delinquency and was a media hero in his day. His Seduction sparked a Senate investigation led by Estes Kefauver into comics and youth crime and nearly led to the demise of the entire industry.
In Collins’ Seduction, set in 1954 New York, Wetham’s fictional twin, Dr. Werner Fredrick, himself becomes victim of a murder seemingly influenced by “reading a bunch of sick sick sick comic books.” Among the suspects is a cast of characters inspired by comics creators of the day, most notably EC comics publisher William M. Gaines (here known as Robert Price), who proves a prime suspect after having an amphetamine fueled flameout testifying before the Senate, a moment inspired by Gaines’ real-life diet-pilled testimony before Kefauver and company.
Here to solve the crime are Jack Starr and his stepmother Maggie, The World’s Second Most Famous Striptease Artist. Jack is vice president of Staff Syndicate, a newspaper syndicate with close ties to the comic book industry; boss Maggie was his late father’s third and final showgirl wife. A canny businesswoman, Maggie uses her stepson as a troubleshooter, looking out for the syndicate’s best interests. Brokering a deal with Robert Price for a syndicated version of his satire comic Craze, Jack and Maggie have a proprietary interest in uncovering Fredricks’ killer after the horror comics publisher has been seen publicly threatening the psychiatrist.
As the narrator of Seduction, Jack proves reminiscent of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin or Erle Stanley Gardner’s Donald Lam, though the wisecracking former m.p. also offers an amusing Mickey Spillane ref in the book. (“He sounded like the disappointed villainess at the end of I, the Jury.”) Suspects include writer and editor Hal Feldman (based on EC writer/artist/editor Al Feldstein), sultry female cartoonist Lyla Lamont (inspired by one of the era’s few woman artists, Tarpe Mills, and her superheroine Miss Fury), Fredricks associate Garshon Lehman (based on an associate of Wertham’s who reportedly had a hand in the writing of the anti-comics polemic), as well as an explosive comics addled city kid and a gangster with ties to the comics distribution biz.
Each chapter in the book is graced by an illo designed by longtime Collins collaborator Terry Beatty in the style of famed EC artist Johnny Craig. The novel even, amusingly, features a two page strip just before the solution is revealed where the detective talks to the reader a la Ellery Queen’s “Challenge to the Reader.” I didn’t have any difficulty with the solution, but the prime pleasure in Seduction comes from Collins’ smooth recreation of a time in pop culture history that still has resonance in a day where today’s scolds focus on violent videogames with the same misguided fervor that Kefauver and his subcommittee displayed in the fifties.
Per Collins’ afterword, Seduction is the third in a trio of Jack and Maggie Starr mysteries centered on comics; the first two books are presently out-of-print, though there are plans to reprint them under the Hard Case imprint. Having not read the earlier entries, I’m looking forward to their reissuing. If they’re anything like this book, they should prove extremely satisfying for both comic and mystery fan-addicts.