Book Review: Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins
Years ago, Sam Fizer hired young Hal Rapp as an art assistant on his comic strip Mug O’ Malley. At first, they were good friends, but when the ambitious Rapp struck out on his own with his new strip Tall Paul, Fizer felt betrayed. Especially as the characters around hillbilly Paul were very similar to ones created for Mug’s supporting cast. The two men feuded for years; but things have become especially heated now that there’s a Tall Paul musical on Broadway and Sam Fizer’s ex-wife has a big part in it.
So when Sam Fizer is found dead at his drawing board, in a particularly fake-looking “suicide”, Hal Rapp is the number one suspect. It’s up to Starr Syndicate’s in-house troubleshooter Jack Starr and his stepmother/boss Maggie Starr to figure out who really killed Fizer and why, if they want to hire Rapp away from his current distributor.
This is the second Starr Syndicate novel, set in the 1950s by author Max Allan Collins, who is familiar with the newspaper comics business from his time as the writer of Dick Tracy. It’s a roman a clef (novel with a key) as Fizer and Rapp stand in for Ham Fisher, creator of Joe Palooka and Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame. Several other cartoonists also get the transparent name change treatment. As the author mentions in the afterword, this is so he can switch things around and introduce entirely fictional elements. (For example, Ham Fisher didn’t die the year the book has Sam Fizer doing it.)
For a huge old-time comics fan like myself, there are lots of in-jokes and references to enjoy; but there’s also a twisty mystery with multiple suspects and several red herrings for those who just want to read a book. The experience is enhanced by the drawings of Terry Beatty, who gets to stretch a bit as he imitates the art styles of the cartoonists in question.
Jack Starr is a likable narrator, closer to soft-boiled than hard as he’s had to give up alcohol and tobacco, and drinks Coca-Cola like they’re paying him to endorse it. (He claims they aren’t, but he’s willing to make a deal.) He does the legwork, but it’s actually former stripper Maggie who is the brains of the outfit.
There are some outdated period attitudes, deliberately done, but still a teensy irritating.
Overall, good writing, a sense of fun, and you may learn a thing or two about the comics business. Highly recommended.