GEORGE HARMON COXE – Focus on Murder.

Pyramid R-1259; reprint paperback; 1st printing, January 1966. Cover by Frank Kalan. Hardcover edition: Alfred A. Knopf, March 1954. Hardcover reprint: Dollar Mystery Guild, June 1954. Previous paperback reprint: Dell 970, 1958.

COXE Murder with Pictures

   What with two paperback editions and (more importantly) a book club edition, this is not a difficult book to find, if you all you want to do is to have one to read.

   In his prime, if Coxe was not a bestselling author like Gardner and Christie, his sales must have been steady if not spectacular, as his career in hardcovers began in 1935, with Murder with Pictures (with Kent Murdock) and did not end until No Place for Murder in 1975 (not with Kent Murdoch, but with PI Jack Fenner, who also appeared in that very first book).

   Here’s something interesting. While Jack Fenner appeared in 12 cases chronicled by Coxe, his only solo appearance was that last one, which appeared when the author was 74. (Coxe himself lived another nine years, until 1984.)

   Coxe is probably best known for his series character “Flashgun” or “Flash” Casey, a tough Boston-based news photographer who began his crime-solving in the pages of Black Mask magazine, circa 1934, but (after a quick double-check to confirm this) he wrote far many more novels in which Boston-based news photographer Kent Murdock appeared (23) than those in which Casey was the detective of record (only five).

COXE Focus on Murder

   The difference in fame, relatively speaking, is probably due to the fact that Casey had a long-running radio show named after him, and two movies based on his exploits, while Murdock had neither.

   Kevin Burton Smith over at his Thrilling Detective website suggests that Murdock is Casey with the rough edges smoothed off. Given Casey’s early pulp fiction days, he is probably quite correct in that assessment. Since their paths seem to have never crossed, that only adds credence to a hypothesis that one was really the alter ego of the other (and therefore could not appear in the same book at the same time).

   Whatever. Although his roots were definitely in the pulps, I would still consider Coxe as an author solidly in the detective story tradition of the so-called Golden Age. If you do indeed come across a copy of this book, and if my review and other chatter convinces you to read it as well — which I certainly am attempting to do — be sure to strap yourself in for a fast-paced sequence of action and clues which you’ll have to keep your eyes on every minute of the way.

   Let’s get the basic story line out of the way first. A colleague of Murdock’s at the Courier is found murdered shortly in his apartment after his (Murdock’s) departure, said colleague (as it turns out) having been a blackmailer in his spare time. That Murdock happened to have been in Ralph Stacy’s place of residence is important but not significant in the sense that he becomes one of the suspects –Lt. Bacon has worked with Casey before, and I’ll get back to this in a moment — but (as it turns out) an entire parade of suspects was in and out of the apartment and/or lurking around the building both before and after Murdock comes on the scene.

COXE Focus on Murder

   There is nothing like good old-fashioned (and dirty) blackmail to create a long list of such suspects, not to mention a wife who has just moved out, a current girl friend and a close boy friend of said girl friend, who just happens to be the jazz singer shown on the cover. Murdock is also personally offended by the murder in a personal sense, being a true-blood newspaperman through and through, nor can the reader help be offended as well.

   Coxe also had an excellent insight into the way people in the real world (mostly male, I concede) react to tragedy and other things, which includes matters of right versus wrong, in a strangely tweedy sort of way. He also seems to have been quite the jazz aficionado. I won’t quote Murdock’s conversation with pianist Jack Frost about Art Tatum on page 80 — it’s rather long — but there is nothing said here about Tatum that anyone could possibly dispute.

   By page 116, Lt. Bacon has (figuratively) thrown up his hands and asks Murdock, quite unofficially of course, to give him (Bacon) whatever assistance he (Murdock) can. And of course he (Murdock) does, again with neither the final flourish of a Christie or a Gardner (to pick a couple of prime examples) out of the air, but with the somewhat subdued manner of a magician whose apparent casualness catches you blinking, with the sudden understanding of just how easily the unwary reader (me, this time) can be taken in.

— March 2005 (slightly revised)

[UPDATE] 08-06-08.   Well, as you can see, whatever reservations I had about Coxe’s plotting abilities in One Hour to Kill were completely non-existent in this Kent Murdock mystery published some ten years earlier. I’ll really have to read that other book again, as I simply can’t tell you if I was really as hard on it then as I’m reading into my own review of it now.

   Other the other hand, I’ve just finished Fashioned for Murder (from 1947), and I didn’t find a whole lot to be happy about at all. (This is what prompted my going back and digging out these earlier two reviews.) I’ll get my review of it posted soon, but of course I will have to write it first.