GEORGE HARMON COXE – One Hour to Kill.   Paperback reprint: Pyramid R-1186, May 1965. Hardcover edition: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

   On the cover of the paperback that I have, it states that this was the author’s 50th mystery, so while I didn’t check that particular figure, I did go to look his record up in Hubin’s Crime Fiction III [the current edition at the time I wrote this review].


   It takes a few years to write that many novels, and this one was written when the author was in his early 60s. Coxe went on to write another dozen or so more, averaging a book a year up until he was in his mid-70s. Earlier on he wrote for Black Mask and other pulp magazines of the 1930s, moved over to the slicks, and on the side, in his spare time, he did loads of work for radio, TV and the movies.

   Very well known, and (one surmises) almost forgotten today. My own surmise depends on the other half of what I do when I’m not reading mysteries, and that’s selling them, and I’m sorry to say that George Harmon Coxe is not a big seller. Not a poor seller, I hasten to add, but well below average, and not proportional to his output as an author.

   When I was a member of the Dollar Mystery Guild in the mid-to-late 50s, I devoured his books, but mostly the ones with either of the two Boston newspaper photographers, Flashgun Casey or Kent Murdock.

   I couldn’t tell you why for sure, but I think the lure of a couple of guys who knew their way around a tough metropolitan area offered a considerable amount of appeal to a young boy growing up in upstate Michigan.

   I didn’t care for his other mysteries very much, though, the ones taking place primarily in the islands of the Caribbean, of which this is a prime example, and in Trinidad, to be precise. Too foreign, to me, I think, at the time.

   In any case, to get on with the story, in One Hour to Kill Dave Wallace is having marital problems. He has a new love in his life, but he also has a wife who’s just reneged on a divorce and has come down to move back in. (She also one of the most unpleasant women I come across in quite a bit of reading, if I may offer a brief aside.)

   When she’s murdered, as it quite evident she will be within the first two pages of meeting her, Wallace knows he’s the obvious first person the police will suspect, and he decides he has to keep two jumps ahead of them to clear himself, concealing evidence, picking up clues, and generally muddying up the trail.

   All pretty much the wrong decisions to make — the native policemen are not dummies — but then again, if he didn’t, we probably wouldn’t have a story.

   And as it turns out, it’s through his efforts that the crime is solved — a fair-play story of detection — so fair, in fact, that when the truth is revealed, you can see where Coxe practically gave the game completely away, if you were paying attention, and as usual, my mind was elsewhere at the time.

   Some of the ways that Wallace uncovers information are so patently artificial, however, that it’s — and here comes my excuse — it’s difficult to concentrate on what really matters.

   Here’s a bit of what I mean. On page 94 Wallace is talking to someone who says, “There was one other thing, now that I think of it.” This is someone who is on Wallace’s side and not only was there one more thing, but he eventually ends up confiding in him that (a) he was eavesdropping on the dead woman before she died, (b) overheard the tail end of a crucial telephone conversation, (c) saw another car drive up, and (d) wrote down the license number. No less.

   Coxe is a very precise writer in most ways, with well-constructed backgrounds for all of the characters, and lots of descriptions of homes, offices and (to be expected) taverns, restaurants and other watering holes on the island.

   But while the timing of events surrounding the murder is really quite cleverly done — see the title of the book — Coxe’s tale also seems to have become outdated in a way he didn’t quite foresee. The final clue, in fact, the one that points to the killer, is therefore one I can’t tell you very much about, but here’s a hint.

   Maybe, just maybe, back in the era when you had to step on starters to get cars going, maybe a crucial switch that killer had to make could have been done, and no one would have thought anything about it.

   Today it seems as outmoded as (say) reading books on paper may be someday soon.

— July 2003 (slightly revised)

[UPDATE] 08-14-10.   The revision comes in the last paragraph of this review, in which I used an updated example.

Previously on this blog:

Uninvited Guest (reviewed by Steve Lewis)
Old Time Radio: Crime Photographer [09 Nov 1950] “Woman of Mystery”
Murder for Two (reviewed by Steve Lewis)
Film: Here’s Flash Casey (reviewed by Steve Lewis)
GEORGE HARMON COXE in the Movies and on TV (by Tise Vahimagi)
Fashioned for Murder (reviewed by Steve Lewis)
Focus on Murder (reviewed by Steve Lewis)

[UH-OH DEPARTMENT.]   I’ve just discovered that this is the second time I’ve posted this review — the first time was on Wednesday 6 Aug 2008, to be precise. Well, that was over two years ago. You can’t expect me to remember anything longer than that, can you?

   I might have deleted this post after I found this out, but after doing all of the work it took to come up with all of George Harmon Coxe’s previous appearances on this blog, I wasn’t about to throw it all away.

   But if you’d like a refund on this rerun, the line forms at the exit door, over there in the rear on the right.