Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dick Tracy The Secret Files edited by Max Allan Collins and Martin H. Greenberg

Since I was able to read the comics page in the newspaper on my own, I've been a fan of Dick Tracy. He's a cartoon embodiment of my detective fiction, Dragnet rerun, Columbo-watching childhood, and he will forever be fond to me because the Warren Beatty-Madonna movie is the first movie I ever saw in a theater behind my mother's back. (Sorry Mom!)

He's kinda fallen on hard times, only appearing in like 50 newspapers now and being written and illustrated by a team that doesn't quite seem to know how to tell a consistent story. I follow the strip online now, and it's great one day--or even for a few days--then falls into artistic issues (a motorcycle that dwarfs two men) or plot problems (how do two men keep moving with bear traps on their legs?).

So getting a chance to read a book edited by the man who succeeded Chester Gould was too good to pass up. Almost certainly a movie tie-in, Collins puts together a fairly solid set of stories about the yellow-clad detective, with Tracy ranging in age and time period from today's dark crimes and violent drug offenders to some that harken back to the days of Gould's run (which I am reading in the collections from Fantagraphics and will be reviewing over on the sister blog, Panel Patter).

I'm going to highlight the stories I liked best and worst, which should give you a pretty good feel for if this is the book for you.

Origins by Mike Resnik opens the collection with a young Gould working on finding his niche in the comics world and aided by a man who will end up seeming very familiar. This may be the best in the collection, which is no surprise given Resnik's resume.

Ron Goulart sends Tracy to Hollywood to interact with a recurring character of his. While they're filming a Dick Tracy movie, a suspicious suicide happens on the set. Can Tracy spot the crime in time to prevent a miscarriage of justice? Playfully written, Goulart's ability to write about 1940s Hollywood (as shown in his Groucho books) always puts his stories a cut above the rest.

Cereal Killer takes things in a darker direction, being the first of many stories placing Dick's family in danger--or at least, perceived danger. (This also happens in Auld Aquaintance, Homefront, and Chessboard's Last Gambit, to name a few.) I like the trick Rex Miller uses here, but some readers may feel cheated.

Rockabilly is notable for bringing back Tracy's nemesis Mumbles as a singer in a band. The story itself is pretty straightforward, but I found that idea so funny that I forgave the story itself any flaws it may have had. Tracy almost ends up one for the record books in this caper, and of all of them, it feels like the one most likely to have appeared in comic form.

Homefront is by Max's wife Barbara, and it didn't do anything for me. I felt like Collins ran Tess through every possible woman-in-danger cliche, and that didn't work for me. It's possible she was trying to be ironic, but the irony was lost on me. This was my least favorite story in the collection.

Paradise Lake Monster tries to take Dick out of his usual environment by giving him a simple mystery on vacation. I solved the crime within the first few pages, so the rest wasn't all that engaging for me. It may also just be anthology fatigue--sometimes I get a bit tired halfway through a book of this nature.

Old Saying is a playful story with a lot of verbal wordplay. Tracy and Sam must go after a gang with a member who can change into anyone for a brief period of time, leading to sight gags and peril. Can they catch the crooks--once they figure out who they are? Any story with puns gets points with me, so while I guffaw, you may groan at this one.

Whirlpool, Sizzle, and the Juice and Living Legend are by far the darkest of the bunch, with the violence pushed to the forefront and ham-handed commentary on the 1980s gang wars and Tracy struggling to deal with the new realities of the world. They're technically fine but I just felt like the writers were laying it on too thick.

Edward D. Hoch, who seemingly has written everything but a chapter in the Bible, provides a compelling story of misdirection in Chessboard's Last Gambit (I'm not giving anything away by saying that, as that's what a gambit is--making a stunning move to try and throw your opponent off) as Tracy must try to sift through the clues and attempt to beat the system to save the day--and maybe, just maybe, his wife. Hoch shows more modern realities in his story, too, but in a way that doesn't jar the reader.

Last up is Collins, writing a fractured Christmas tale that involves the murder of children and one horrible Santa Clauss. The tale is dark without being too gory, Collins allowing the reader to fill in the nastier pictures. I love how Tracy and Co. react to the crime--it's one thing to go after a killer, but a child-killer is another thing altogether. A great ending to the series.

I didn't touch on all 16 stories in the collection, but they are similar in nature, featuring Tracy taking on criminals odd and mundane, often with Sam and Lizz in tow. Pat is mostly the Chief here, but he gets in some good licks, too, when the time is right.

If you like Dick Tracy or simple detective fiction, this is a great, fun read. As with most Greenberg anthologies, the stories are always quality--nothing here sticks out as being badly-written, even if I didn't love it. On the other hand there's no chances here, either--a story about Gould himself and a few nods to meta-Tracy are all you'll get in the way of experiments. All in all, while the stories are definitely a product of their time, it's a writing style I enjoy and I think most of you would, too.

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