Max Allan Collins Author of Road to Perdition, Chats about his New Novel Seduction of the Innocent
CB: How would you describe Seduction of the Innocent?
It’s a mystery set in 1954 with a traditional, Golden Age approach – think Charlie Chan, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot – right down to the gathering of the suspects in the final chapter. What gives it a certain edge, I hope, is the contrast between this fairly lighthearted approach and a very serious subject, and I don’t mean murder. We’re looking at the attack on comic books at the height of the McCarthy era by Dr. Frederic Wertham and others, including the United States Senate. My detectives, Jack and Maggie Starr, have appeared in two other mysteries of mine, also revolving around history-of-comics themes; they run a comic strip syndicate with ties to the comic-book industry. Most of the other characters are thinly veiled caricatures of real people, or composites of real people, mostly writers, artists, editors and publishers in the comic-book industry of the early 1950s.
CB: The book was based on a 1950s non-fiction book of the same title. How did you come across that title and why did you feel particularly passionate about the subject?
I was a little kid in the 1950s who was very aware of Dr. Wertham’s attack on comic books. I knew of that book back then, and even had my mom check it out of the library for me. Anybody of that era who grew up loving comic books knew about Wertham and hated him. Having my comic books taken away or watered-down in Comics Code pap, as a kid, remains the source of my passion for this subject, as an adult.
I wouldn’t say my SEDUCTION is based on Wertham’s, though. I didn’t even bother re-reading the thing, having read it so many times. I did look at other books on the subject, including David Hadju’s definitive THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE.
CB: How did you approach the project and how much research went into it?
Historical detective novels are a specialty of mine, starting with the Nathan Heller novels, which place a traditional Mike Hammer/Phillip Marlowe-style private detective in the midst of the most famous crimes of the twentieth century – TARGET LANCER, dealing with the JFK assassination, appeared just last November. The bedrock of those books – and others I’ve done, like my “disaster” series that started with THE TITANIC MURDERS – is research, research, research. From the start, my fellow comics fan George Hagenauer has been my research partner. He’s fantastic. In the case of SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, both George and I had unwittingly been preparing for this book for many decades. He handed over a two-foot stack of research materials for me at the outset.
CB: Roughly how long does each novel take from concept to finish?
That’s a tough one, and it varies book to book. A lot of times I have it in mind to do a book on a subject, in particular a real crime of the twentieth century, and I will gather material, and read that material, over many, many years. I would say with SEDUCTION that I read research material for about a month, taking detailed notes, and then wrote for about a month. But this doesn’t include such things as George coming down from Madison, Wisconsin, to spend several days with me in my home in Muscatine, Iowa, brainstorming and going over research materials. Nor does it include time spent writing a plot outline, and preparing the script for artist Terry Beatty to do his comics-style illos for the start of each chapter, and the comic-book sequence toward the end where Jack and Maggie remind the reader of the suspects and clues. This is a reference to the Ellery Queen “Challenge to the Reader,” done so beautifully and humorously on the old ELLERY QUEEN TV show with Jim Hutton. Of course, his son Tim Hutton played Archie Goodwin on the great NERO WOLFE show, and the Jack and Maggie Starr novels are if nothing else an homage to Wolfe creator Rex Stout.
CB: Who’s your biggest inspiration?
I would have to lump a lot of people together – it’s cartoonists like Will Eisner and Chester Gould, and writers like Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, and filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph H. Lewis (GUN CRAZY). Wanting to achieve that level of excellence inspires me, hopeless though it might be. Three films – KISS ME DEADLY, VERTIGO, and CHINATOWN – represent a level of excellence I would love to attain. The latter two touch the emotions in a manner that I strive toward – not in every work, but when it’s appropriate.
I would say my wife Barb doesn’t inspire me exactly, but she’s definitely my muse. I write every chapter for her, and she reads it and critiques it before I go on.
CB: Great idea to set your story in the time of the “witch hunt” against comics. Were you surprised that no one had done anything like this previously? Was this an area that
always fascinated you as a writer and comics fan? Looking back on that era it’s hard to believe it actually happened.
The whole McCarthy era has been very much on my radar, with my Nate Heller series – I may eventually have Heller meet Dashiell Hammett, who was a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But the comics-era Witch Hunt is something I’ve always been aware of – when Bill Mumy, Steve Leialoha, Miguel Ferrer and I first began performing at the San Diego Con, we knew “Seduction of the Innocent” was absolutely the right name for a comic-book rock band. Chris Christensen joined us later on, by the way, and it was Miguel who came up with the name for the band.
I have no trouble believing that the Witch Hunt happened – it was a major aspect of my childhood. That was when people really started to look down at you, if you read comics. Before Wertham, lots of the populace read comic books, particularly returning servicemen from World War Two. Comic books were huge among soldiers. The kids who grew up on Batman and Superman had kept reading comics, only now it was war, crime, horror, western, romance and humor books, as they headed into high school and college. Comics were mainstream, selling millions and millions of copies, when Wertham struck like locusts on a healthy crop.
CB: Do you get much transference from, let’s say your comic audience to your prose work and vice versa? Do they feed off each other or are they separate audiences?
I’m not really sure. I work in so many areas that I kind of doubt very many people follow me everywhere. Do the readers of my series about hitman Quarry also read the cozy antiqueing mysteries I do with my wife, as “Barbara Allan”? Probably not many. Many fans often rather proudly announce to me that they don’t read my movie and TV tie-in novels. I do sense that comic book readers seek out the novels more often than vice versa. Comic book readers are more open-minded – they will get their fun anywhere they can find it.
CB: Was their any temptation or thought to turning Seduction of the Innocent into a graphic novel?
No, because the whole point of the Jack and Maggie Starr series was to do something that was in-between a graphic novel and a prose novel. In the first two, Terry also did the cover, and the comic-art “Challenge to the Reader” was much longer. On the other hand, the Hard Case Crime package is much better than what we had – the Orbik cover is amazing, and Terry was able to do a fake-EF cover as a frontispiece.
CB: Has there been any options on Seduction for a movie? After the huge success of Road To… there must be several producers keeping tabs on your work.
SEDUCTION is getting a lot of attention, so offers may come in. Several of my things are getting some serious Hollywood heat at the moment, though rarely do these things actually come to fruition. I think Jack and Maggie would work great on cable TV. Now that LEVERAGE is gone, Tim Hutton would make the definitive Jack.
10. What are you most looking forward to for the Seduction of the Innocent blog tour?
Is it fair to say, “For it to be over?” I really do get tired of talking about myself, a little less so about the work. What makes it rewarding is that every blog interview has been different – the questions, the approach, the attitude, always a little different than anyone else. That makes it much more of a pleasure.
But I want to get back to work. I’m not used to telling the truth for free. I would rather tell lies for money.
CB: What are your plans for your next project?
Coming up, I have a Mike Hammer short story to do, and then my draft of ANTIQUES A GO GO, the latest in the cozy series I do with my wife, writing as Barbara Allan, as I mentioned. The new one, ANTIQUES CHOP, a really good one about a Lizzie Borden-style axe murder, will be out in May. And so will the new Mike Hammer novel, with me finishing a Cold War Thriller begun fifty years ago by Mickey Spillane – COMPLEX 90. I love that book. People are in for a wild ride.
CB: Any Message for the ComicBuzz readers?
For those of you with excellent taste, never fear – there remains hope that Ms. Tree will re-emerge. We are almost certainly going to a complete reprint series going, and Terry Beatty and I are discussing a new graphic novel, to be titled HOT FLASH (Ms. Tree in menopause)
We would like to thank Max for chatting to us and wish him all the best on his Seduction of the Innocent Blog Tour!
This article was posted as part of the Seduction of the Innocent Blog Tour,
Find out more about the book and the tour at www.titanbooks.com/