Neal Adams gives us another compelling, if misleading, image for the cover of Detective Comics #398 (1970).
A “poison pen” letter is simply a vitriolic missive designed to upset or “call out” the recipient, but there is something poetic about the phrase that imbues it with the connotation of something darker. Sometimes word choice can make all the difference. The title of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” for example, has an undeniably sinister ring to it. “Purloined” simply means “stolen,” but Poe’s decision to use the former word rather than the latter gives the title a more mysterious feel, perhaps because “purloined” is a less-frequently used word (at least in modern terms).
If the meaning of a word is unknown to a reader, it’s easy enough for him or her to consult the dictionary (especially in 2013 when a computer or a phone with Internet access is seldom out of reach), but in the mid-nineteenth century it wasn’t quite so simple, and many readers probably wouldn’t have bothered with it anyway (there were more important things to worry about; say, staving off cholera). Poe is well-known for his turgid language, but despite this it seems likely that he didn’t select “purloined” over “stolen” without careful consideration. After all, the effectiveness of a title is often all a potential reader has to go on.
The alliteration in the title of Batman’s story in this issue is also effective in creating a kind of poetic quality that is both eerie and strangely beautiful.
The premise of “The Poison Pen Puzzle” is not an unfamiliar one. Someone has written a “fictional” book based on the lives of some of Hollywood’s elite. In the literary world, this is known as a roman a clef (The Devil Wears Prada and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas being prime examples). The names have been replaced, but the facts are unchanged. Truth, at times, is more interesting than fiction, and presenting truth in the guise of fiction is even better. It has, at times, gotten authors in trouble (in at least one case a libel suit was filed), but some stories beg to be told.
Bruce Wayne, on his way to Hollywood via airplane, winds up sitting next to Maxine Melanie, bestselling author of The In People of Out City, the scandalous book in question. Wayne is on his way to a meeting with Seven-Star Pics, a film studio with which Wayne Enterprises is slated to merge. Wayne has a low opinion of Melanie’s book and is shocked when he discovers that it’s been optioned for a movie by the very studio he’s planning to work with. When he arrives at the meeting, he angrily declares that the book is trash and threatens to renege on the merger if they don’t drop it.
When one of the board members asks Wayne if he’s actually read the book rather than just basing his opinion on hearsay, Wayne admits that he hasn’t and asks if a copy is available. They offer to let him read the publisher’s advance copy but find that it is missing. Wayne tells them that he will just drop by the local bookstore and pick one up. It just so happens that Melanie is signing books at the store. As Wayne looks on, an old woman breaks in line to ask for an autograph and gives Melanie her pen.
Suddenly, Melanie screams in pain and collapses, dropping the book. Wayne retrieves the volume and tries to return it to the old woman, but she grabs his hand and flips him onto the ground and then disappears. A doctor who happens to be in the store examines Melanie’s body and finds that she is dead. Wayne suggests that he look at her index finger, and he discovers a pin-prick. The pen that the old woman gave her had a tiny needle tipped with poison hidden near the nib. Wayne takes the dropped book and finds that it is an advance copy, assuming it’s the one the film company was sent. He returns to the Seven-Star offices and is told that a stenographer had taken their copy, effectively deepening the mystery.
The board is distressed upon Wayne’s arrival, not because of Melanie’s death but because Loren Melburn, one of their top actresses, has confessed to the murder. She, her husband Dorian Spence, and one Rod Drake (both of the men are also actors) were all characters in Melanie’s novel and are thus all suspects. Wayne realizes that Melburn couldn’t have been the old woman from the bookstore in disguise because she wouldn’t have possessed such great strength. As he runs the facts through his mind, another member of the board enters the room and reports that Spence has also confessed to the murder.
Wayne dons his Batman gear and heads to the police station, where Melburn and Spence are being held. Batman suggests that one is probably covering for the other, since a spouse cannot be forced to testify against his or her partner. He asks that they be released, as he is now on the case. Visiting them at their home, the Dark Knight attempts to return the advance copy of Melanie’s book to Melburn. She insists that she wouldn’t even touch it much less read it, and the fact that she doesn’t assault him when he tries to hand it to her absolves her as far as Batman is concerned. Spence, on the other hand, attacks him, flipping him as the “old woman” in the bookstore did. The Caped Crusader subdues him, pushing him into the unlit fireplace, and Spence demands that he leave before he kills him, just like he did Melanie.
Batman heads for Drake’s estate, which is right next door. Drake appears, his features hidden by a shadowy topiary, declaring his innocence. He apprises the Dark Knight of the fact that he overheard the couple having a heated exchange the night before the murder, during which Spence stated that Melanie deserved to be “stabbed with her own poison pen.” As Batman considers this, Drake steps from the darkness, but it is the image of Spence that is bathed in light.
He comes at Batman with a fireplace poker, but a hand reaches out to seize his arm. Suddenly there are two Spences. Batman strikes the one with the poker, and his mask falls off, revealing the face of Drake. He confesses that he fed Melanie information about Melburn and Spence in exchange for a promise of the lead in the movie version of The In People of Out City. He murdered her, in the guise of the old woman, because she had broken her word and cast another actor. The advance copy of the book he had given her to autograph was his only payment and her ultimate undoing.
The fact the “poison pen” in this story is an actual pen with, well, poison on it is an interesting twist, if a fairly obvious one. I can’t say that I was sorry to see Melanie bite the dust; her holier-than-thou attitude and insistence that her book was not a pile of crap while on the plane was rather annoying. And do we really need to pollute the cultural atmosphere with more celebrity gossip? Drake’s motive for offing her was kind of weak, if you ask me, even though I have read murder mysteries with weaker ones. How is doing her in going to fix anything? It reminds me of how some people sue for slander or libel. If they win, is the money going to change anything? Is it going to somehow un-print or un-speak the offending words? It’s a strange world.