Review: ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ by Max Allan Collins

SOTIFrom its lurid cover (another stellar effort by Hard Case Crime regular Glen Orbik) to its over-the-top title and scandalous premise, Seduction of the Innocent would appear to be a book as extreme as the comics that figure heavily in its plot.

It’s not. And while that may be something of a letdown it’s a forgivable one, because what you get instead is a solid murder mystery and a fascinating peek into one of the most controversial and misguided smear campaigns in American history.

Author Max Allan Collins uses Dr. Fredric Wertham’s 1954 crusade against comics as the framework for this novel, which he named after Wertham’s own book. (That book, mocked for decades, was recently thoroughly debunked and discredited.) Many of the more sensational elements of Collins’s story – congressional hearings on the evils of comics, mob ties to the funnybook business, drunken brawls and suicidal creators – are based on actual events that took place during that time, and many of its characters are based on real-life players in that saga.

In addition to these historical figures, Collins brings in a couple of his own creations – Jack Starr and his stepmother, Maggie, previously featured in the novels A Killing in Comics and Strip for Murder. Like Seduction, the previous Starr books lift their plots from real stories of the early days of comics (think ripped-off artists and feuding creators), making this the third chapter in a loose history of the medium.

The Starrs aren’t in the comic book business; rather, their company, Starr Syndicate, places comic strips in newspapers all over the country. Maggie runs the company, but Jack’s job may be the more difficult one – given that the artists are a moody lot, it’s Jack’s job to head off trouble when he can, and to extricate his talent from their messes when he can’t.

The Starrs’ comic strip business is deeply intertwined with the comic book business, so when a prominent player in the growing controversy stirred by Dr. Werner Frederick’s book Ravage the Lambs ends up dead, Jack finds himself embroiled in an investigation that encompasses several of his associates. The death doesn’t occur until halfway through the book, but Collins uses the ample lead time to flesh out the characters and lay out some of the fascinating and complicated inner workings of the comic book industry. The rest of the novel is spent shadowing Jack as he tries to find out who committed the murder and how he might minimize the effect it has on his company and the business overall.

While you don’t have to be a fan of comics or a student of that particular era of the business to enjoy Seduction, those who meet that criteria are going to find an extra layer of goodness in its pages. It’s hard to imagine society reaching that level of hysteria in today’s climate (well, in relation to comics, anyway, since comics, like all things geek, are in vogue these days), but Collins draws a vivid portrait of the uproar the country was in at the time – an uproar efficiently whipped up by one man and a handful of carefully manipulated “facts.” Into this he mixes an intriguing murder mystery and a colorful cast of characters. The result is thoroughly entertaining page-turner, and another win for Hard Case Crime.