Can Jack Starr, private eye to the funny-book industry, and his beautiful boss Maggie unravel the secret of Dr. Frederick’s gruesome demise? Or will thecrackdown come, falling like an executioner’s axe…?
A hardboiled detective novel inspired by the 1950s witch-hunt against crime and horror comic books. Written by best-selling novelist Max Allan Collins (author of Road to Perdition and long-time scripter of the Dick Tracy newspaper comic strip) and featuring 16 pages of interior illustrations by comic-book artist Terry Beatty (Batman, The Phantom), SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT tells the story of comic book industry troubleshooter Jack Starr and his investigation into the death of a moralizing crusader out to get violent comics banned.
The book was inspired in part by the real-life crusade of Dr. Fredric Wertham, who in 1954 published a non-fiction book also titled Seduction of the Innocent in which he accused comic books – especially violent ones such as those put out by Tales from the Crypt publisher EC Comics – of corrupting America’s innocent youth.”
Lyla Lamont lived on one of those cobblestone side streets rife with converted stables and carriage houses. Her building was a three-story brick pile that had been whitewashed, its shutters painted green, ironwork painted black. Similar buildings lined both sides of this narrow street, all overseen by the only gas lamps left in the city.
Lyla was on the second floor. I’d been here a number of times, picking up past-deadline artwork when she was doing her strip Miss Fortune for Starr. The strip had been pretty risqué for family newspapers, sort of a female Zorro, and fairly popular, particularly with adolescent girls still working out their sexuality. There were paper dolls, too, with Miss Fortune and other cuties in their lacy underwear, also popular, particularly with adolescent boys still working out theirs.
La Lamont was fairly tall but not willowy, more curvy, an exotic beauty in a Maria Montez kind of way. I would come to the door, she’d be in a black silk dressing robe, smoking a cigarette like Rita Hayworth in Gilda, with one pale, perfect leg slipped outside the robe like a dare.
She would hand me the art between big slices of cardboard, say, “Don’t scold me,” and shut the door. In other words, she would raise my expectations, then immediately lower them. If you said she was a tease, you’d be off by half a compound word.
What a big, plush woman like this was doing with a squirt like Pine, I couldn’t imagine. But rumor had it she drank hard and smoked reefer and slept with anybody of either sex who struck her fancy. This might have intrigued me if I hadn’t been the guy who had to come around periodically to shake overdue artwork out of her.
The last time I’d opened this green door, up three little steps from the sidewalk, had been two years and a few months ago, right before Maggie fired Miss Fortune’s creator for unreliability. I wondered if Lyla had changed much in that time.
I went in and looked up the narrow flight of wooden stairs to the second-floor landing where, I’ll be damned, there she stood. The first thing I noticed different about her was the lack of a black silk robe.
She was, as the 25-cent paperback writers are wont to say, stark naked.
Stood there pale and white as the flesh of an orchid, her legs endless, her hips flaring, the waist narrow, breasts high and sweeping outward like a threat paid off by her dark erect nipples, a mane of gypsy curls brushing her shoulders, its raven blackness rivaled only by the startling snarl of ebony below her belly button.
Lack of attire be damned, she seemed poised to come down the steps, apparently in a hurry, her dark eyes so wide they were almost popping, and she was one step down when a second figure flew out on to the landing, a male figure, small, compact, wearing a t-shirt and rolled-up jeans and a face contorted with rage.
He shoved her hard from behind, like the guy on the cover of that Suspense Crime Stories comic book at the hearing, and she was falling toward me as I hurtled up the stairs. She didn’t tumble, she had the presence of mind to grab onto a banister, which didn’t stop her fall, her hand sliding down the wooden pole just as she began to do a header, but I was up there in time to catch all that long-legged nakedness in my arms.
For a second, my balance went, and I felt myself tipping backward, and we would have rolled down those narrow stairs in a beautiful demonstration of that classic phrase ass over teakettle, but I managed to lean forward and catch myself, hand clutching the banister even as I clutched her.
“Jack,” she said, eye to eye with me. She had a throaty alto that went nicely with the rest of the package.
“Lyla,” I said.
And I eased her out of my arms and she held onto the banister, and I glared up at the wild-eyed Pine, who was breathing hard, like he’d just lifted a piano. The runt had the fearless look of a madman, but I probably looked much the same—he was like a burning building I was running into, to save a baby, only I didn’t want to save this baby. I wanted to throttle it.
I expected him to retreat into Lyla’s apartment, but instead the crazy little bastard leapt at me, and then he was on me, smelling like a tavern at closing time, taking me backward, and I went bumping down on my back, keeping my head up so I didn’t smack it against the wood, with him riding me, traveling maybe a third of those steps before Lyla put herself in our path, stopping us with her thrust-out bottom as she hung onto that banister with both hands.
Somehow my legs found purchase, a foot on one step, the other foot on another, and shoved up into Pine, with as much force as I could muster, sending him onto his back. I glanced at Lyla and for the first time realized she had blood on her mouth and a bruise blossoming beneath one eye.
He’d been beating her.
A nice little lead-up to shoving her lovely ass down the stairs.
He scrambled off, retreating a step or two, and I got to my feet and reached up and grabbed him by the t-shirt and pulled him forward, then thrust him back, so that his head hit the steps hard. I did that maybe four times, until the wildness went out of his eyes and they started rolling around like marbles.
But even half-unconscious, he managed to kick a powerful little leg out and catch me in the stomach, and I let go of him, reflexively. Again he retreated up the steps. Managing not to puke, I scrambled up after him. As I did, I glanced back down the stairwell at Lyla, maybe halfway to the street now, getting out of our way. Too many fists and feet were flying to suit her, and who could blame her? She just held onto the banister with both hands, her back to the wall, her bare breasts heaving.
In that glance, however, I noticed that she was smiling— blood trickling from the corner of her mouth down her cheek, but smiling as two men fought over her in a stairwell. There was something evil about it. Also, something that propelled me upward where I caught the little prick (that’s the missing part of the compound word, by the way) on the landing.
I tackled him and, like a squirming dog, he tried to escape my grasp. A elbow caught me in the side, once, twice, three times, and then he was out of my arms and I was still down there on the wooden platform that was the landing and he was kicking me, in the ribs, in the stomach, not terribly hard because the space was limited and the angle was wrong, but like stings from a persistent insect, the blows took their toll. Finally I caught his foot—he was in tennies—and twisted it and he went down hard on his side.
We got up simultaneously and he began swinging on me, tiny stinging pellets. They were hard little blows, not doing me as much harm as the women he liked to hit, but sharp little smacks, that too, took a toll. He was so close to me that brewery smell engulfed us both. I assumed a traditional fighter’s pose, leading with my left, and jabbed him in the chest three times, bam, bam, bam. When he paused in his punching, to grab a breath and maybe try for my head, my right fist shot in and turned his face into a smear of red, and he looked like a kid who got into the strawberry jam.
He managed to bring a fist up from his waist and slam me in the temple and, laugh if you want, but I saw stars. Maybe not comic-book stars, but I saw the damn things, and I was woozy on my feet and grabbed onto him in a classic boxer’s clinch, to keep my footing.
I don’t think I threw him down the stairs. Not exactly. I held him away from me and I shook him and I’m sure, pretty sure, I didn’t let go of him intending him to fall. Fairly sure.
But fall he did, windmilling his arms, then doing a somersault that looked almost athletic—bouncing off the narrow side walls enough to slow him some—and Lyla made no move to halt his fall or slow it, either. Nor did she scream. Her smile was gone, her expression almost clinical as she watched the little bastard reach bottom, making a sound like a bundle of kindling tossed off a truck. He lay still.
Had I killed him?