Max Allan Collins has written a LOT of books. According to Fantastic Fiction, a great site for literary completists, that total is currently 127. A lot of them are media tie-ins, including Deadly Beloved, his prose Ms. Tree novel from two years ago. I quite liked the Ms. Tree comic books Collins and artist Terry Beatty have done over the years. I really, and truly, hated Deadly Beloved.
So, it was some trepidation that I put Collins back on the Christmas Wishbooklist. And indeed, Strip for Murder showed up under the tree. And I couldn't be happier. THIS is a return to form of The Last Quarry. An historical fictionalizing of the throwdown feud waged in the mid-twentieth century between the creators of L'il Abner (Andy Capp) and Joe Palooka (Ham Fisher).
Collins changes the names (Tall Paul, Hal Rapp, Mug O'Malley, Sam Fizer) and mixes up locales and timelines intentionally to produce his pastiche. He quite happily admits to all of this in his afterward called, A Tip of the Fedora. He also introduces composite characters and others 'loosely/tightly' based on real-life characters and a murder. Or two.
It's all done lovingly with the utmost respect for an art that's not anything close to what it was, but remains a driving force in helping keep the newspaper alive. The comic pages always remain in the top five features of what people read in newspaper surveys.
I was never much of a fan of L'il Abner, and less of Joe Palooka. But our school DID put on L'il Abner as the school's play my final year at good 'ol Bramalea Secondary School. My most distinct memory of a pretty good version of the play was that a classmate sure looked good all dressed up as Daisy Mae. Made me have a thought or two, if you know what I mean. But I digress.
Collins recreates 1953 Broadway in pretty good detail. He actually spends a pre-amble introducing Broadway AS a character, a tight little community that isn't any wide swatch of New York at all. It's a bit of the street known as Broadway, with important theatres and restaurants running off little side alleys. Collins paints the place as almost cloistered. Then he starts the book in a confusing time-jumping chapter that should, in my mind, have run between chapters three and four. That is my only quibble with the book. Be warned.
Otherwise, he just paints this comic-strip-like picture of a time period long gone in America. With the exception of cartoonists Rapp and Fizer, EVERYBODY seems impossibly beautiful or handsome. Without going beyond the bounds of propriety, Collins paints lavish word pictures of the dames and damsels. If you recognize some of them from real life, so be it. And YES, that WAS Edie Adams as the girl with faith and principles under the other name. The gents get no less a nice treatment.
And if Collins is somehow lax in getting the picture across, there are copious spot illustrations AND a comic-like summation of the facts by Beatty. As it was, I figured out most of who and how about 100 pages before that, but I was very much enjoying the ride. Collins detailing of the cartooning industry at the time is just that fascinating.
I'm NOT a big comic strip fan, although I am, as I've stated before, a big comics fan. My tastes as a kid ran to Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. I liked Buck Roger's of the 25th Century and that's about it for adventure strips. Peanuts was usually good, but more of the weekend colour pages, rather than the daily black and whites. Loved Family Circus and Marmeduke, but didn't make any special efforts not to miss them. Add in Hagar the Horrible and you have my list of strips that I would read first if given the opportunity. I still save every Saturday Toronto Star's comics section. There's a foot-high stack ALWAYS available in my living room should a visitor need to occupy himself or herself for whatever reason. While I don't follow the funnies any more, I seem to be in the minority.
I read Strip for Murder in a single night and immediately put A Killing in Comics, the prequel to this book, on my next Wishbooklist. Collins is BACK!