It is 1953, and comic strips are big business. Jack Starr, “vice president, chief troubleshooter and occasional bottle washer” for Starr Newspaper Syndication Company is on the job. Starr specializes in comic strips, and its biggest player is Sam Fizer’s Mugs O’Malley, but Starr is in negotiations to pick up a new strip from another big hitter named Hal Rapp, which could be a problem since Fizer and Rapp despise each other.
Things heat up when Fizer is found dead in his Waldorf-Astoria residential suite. It is staged as a suicide, and poorly at that; Fizer is right handed, but the gun is in his left, and the suicide note is a comics-style inked affair (making handwriting analysis useless). The obvious suspect is Rapp, but Jack is skeptical and with his “troubleshooter” fedora firmly in place, his private eye license in his back pocket, he starts his own investigation.
Strip for Murder is cleverly plotted, humorous—tongue firmly in cheek from beginning to end—whodunit with a twist that needs reading for believing. It is heavy on dialogue, in a good way, and the descriptions of 1950’s New York, Broadway in particular, and the syndication business are great fun. The prose is spirited in a smooth and whimsical manner—
“Maybe ten seconds later, Maggie stuck her head in; more than her head, the uppermost, most exposed part of her. Very distracting neckline, that red gown.”
Even more distracting, Maggie is his widowed step-mother, and President of Starr Syndicates. His boss, you could say. The characters—from Maggie to Hal Rapp to a Police Captain named Chandler—are charmingly eccentric and make a compelling juxtaposition to Jack’s hardboiled tendencies. A relationship that generates more humor than black eyes.
Strip for Murder is the second in Max Allan Collins’ comic book trilogy; subsequent to A Killing in Comics (2007), and prior to Seduction of the Innocent (2014). It was originally published in 2008, and Dover Mystery Classics has brought it back as a very nice trade paperback with all the trimmings—fully, and very nicely, illustrated by Terry Beatty.