The Files of Ms. Tree volume 1: I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part

By Max Collins & Terry Beatty (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
ISBN: 0-919359-05-1             ASIN: B00072LQCW

Despite being one of the most popular genres in modern literature and the fact that most fiction books are bought and read by women, hard-boiled Private Eye crime stories are desperately short of female protagonists.

Marry that with the observation that in the 1980s “gum-shoe” comics were also as rare as hen’s teeth and it’s a wonder that a series such as Ms. Tree ever got off the drawing board.

The secret – as always – is quality.

The black widow of detective fiction first appeared in 1981 as a part-work serial in the groundbreaking black-and-white anthology comic Eclipse Magazine, rubbing padded shoulders with a number of other quirky alternatives to the East Coast superheroes that had a stranglehold on American comics at that time980s.

Associating with such gems as Sax Rohmer’s Dope (fabulously adapted by Trina Robbins and only recently collected and released in a wonderful pulp thriller edition); Steve Englehart & Marshal Rogers’ I Am Coyote; Don McGregor & Gene Colan’s Ragamuffins; B.C. Boyer’s masterful Masked Man and a host of other gems from the industry’s finest, Max Allan Collins and young humour cartoonist Terry Beatty introduced a cold, calculating and genuinely fierce avenger who put new gloss on the hallowed imagery and plot of the hard-bitten, tough-guy shamus avenging a murdered partner…

As conceived by the successful crime novelist (and scripter of the venerable Dick Tracy newspaper strip), the gun-toting dame was one of the first features to win a solo title: Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories or simply Ms. Tree from the fourth issue. Although the marketplace was not friendly to such a radical concept, the series ran for 50 issues, and 2 specials, from three publishers (Eclipse, Aardvark-Vanaheim and Renegade Press) before finally dying in 1989.

Gone but not quickly forgotten, she was promptly revived as a DC comic in 1990 for another 10 giant-sized issues as Ms. Tree Quarterly/ Ms. Tree Special; three more blood-soaked, mayhem-packed, morally challenging years of pure magic.

Astonishingly, and as far as I know, there are no contemporary collections of her exploits – despite Collins’ status as a prolific and best-selling author of both graphic novels (Road to Perdition, CSI) and prose sequences featuring his crime-creations Nathan Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory and a veritable pantheon of others.

In 2007 Collins released a classy prose novel, “Deadly Beloved” starring his troubled troubleshooter, but thus far The Files of Ms. Tree volumes are the only place to find the collected exploits of this superb crime-stopper.

The first volume, I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part gathers the introductory escapade from Eclipse Magazine #1-6 (May 1981-July 1982) and the follow-up initial story-arc from Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories #1-3 (August-December 1982): two chilling tales of regret and revenge, perfectly delivered as fair-play mystery tales.

You might not be able to extract your own retribution, but if you’re smart enough you can solve the clues as fast as our heroine does…

In ‘I, For an Eye’ we – so very briefly – meet Mike Tree, a true bastion of the detective profession. Hard, tough, sharp and fair he’s an ex-cop who set up in business for himself and did well. At the peak of his career he meets Mike Friday, a feisty, clever, pistol-packing, two-fisted modern woman who quickly moves from secretary to full partner. They fell in love…

On their wedding night her husband is gunned down by an unknown assailant and the new Mrs. Tree sets out to find the killer who made her a honeymoon widow. Assuming control over their detective agency she employs part of the staff to keep the business going but places her husband’s… her… best people onto finding out why her man died. With her tight, dedicated team she uncovers a web of corruption and lies which includes the fact that she was not the first Mrs. Tree.

Mike had a previous wife and a son who’s painfully like his departed dad…

Gritty, witty and darkly relentless, this tale of corruption and twisted friendship sets the pace for all the ensuing adventures; a brilliant odyssey which peels like an onion, always showing that there’s still more to uncover…

Even after finding Mike’s killer and delivering the traditional, mandatory vengeance in grand style, the investigation reveals a higher mastermind behind it all, in the scurrilous shape of mob boss Dominic Muerta, after which second tale ‘Death Do Us Part’ deals with the repercussions of Ms. Tree’s crusade against that psychotic grandee’s operations.

The unrelenting death and misery takes its toll on the traumatised widow: she turns to therapy but when that doesn’t work she takes a long-needed holiday to a distant honeymoon resort.

She even finds a new lover but when the newlyweds in the next cabin are murdered by a hit-man Tree realises that she is trapped on a path that can only lead to more death…

Adult, astute, and enchantingly challenging, this second drama is full of plot twists and clever set-pieces that will charm and beguile crime fans of every persuasion whilst the art by Beatty is a sheer revelation.

Presented as static, informative and understated, the visuals are remorselessly matter-of-fact and deadly in their cold efficiency. It’s a quality which might be off-putting to some but which so perfectly matches the persona of its pitiless star that I can’t imagine any other style working at all.

This volume, released in 1984, is stuffed with behind-the-scenes extras and commentary from both creators, including a colour cover gallery, and – as an added bonus – original illustrated prose short-story ‘Red Light’: a terse thriller that perfectly augments the grim mood of the book.

Despite the tragic scenarios, ruthless characterisations and high body-count, this is a clever, funny affair steeped in the lore of detective fiction, stuffed with in-jokes for the cognoscenti (such as the unspoken conceit that heroine Mike Friday is the daughter of legendary TV cop Joe DragnetFriday) and dripping in the truly magical gratification factor that shows complete scum finally get what’s coming to them…

Ms. Tree is the closest thing the American market has ever produced to challenge our own Queen of Adventure Modesty Blaise: how they can let her languish in graphic obscurity is a greater crime than any described in this compelling classic collection. Hunt it down for your pleasure and pray somebody somewhere has the great good sense to bring back Ms. Tree.
© 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 Max Collins and Terry Beatty. All Rights Reserved.