Max Allan Collins,
Seduction of the Innocent
(Hard Case Crime, 2013)

In 1954, a single individual killed an entire industry. In that year, Frederic Wertham published a nonfiction volume called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he made the charge that comic books caused juvenile delinquency. Wertham, a doctor, claimed his book was based on copious amounts of scientific research and, even though critics of the day pointed out that his methodology was shoddy, his science nonexistent and his conclusions based on no more than his own considerable biases, the book started a witchhunt that caused hundreds of comic books to go out of business, hundreds of writers and artists to lose not just their jobs but their entire industry.

Max Allan Collins has written a mystery, also called Seduction of the Innocent, set against that backdrop. In it, he presents a character, Dr. Werner Frederick, who has written an expose of comic books called Ravage the Lambs, which has set off congressional hearings on comic books -- just as Wertham's book did in real life. Frederick is the villain in Collins' book; he's presented as an opportunist who has no values outside of his own marketability.

When he is murdered, it is up to Jack Starr, trouble-shooter and vice president of the Starr Syndicate, run by his stepmother, Maggie, the Nero Wolfe to Jack's Archie, to solve the crime. The suspects are mostly thinly disguised real-life figure from the Golden Age of comic books, especially the guys from EC, the company that brought on the wrath of Wertham by publishing Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and other titles of that ilk, books that were wonderfully creative, beautifully written and drawn and, occasionally, in very bad taste.

Seduction of the Innocent is a very good mystery in the classical Nero Wolfe vein, but its real joy is in Collins' depiction of the comic-book world, which is based on much more and better research than Wertham did for his book. It's the third and final novel in Collins' Jack & Maggie Starr trilogy, and you can only hope the author changes his mind and visits this world and these characters again.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

23 February 2013

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