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Coxe, George Harmon

Page history last edited by J F Norris 10 years, 1 month ago Saved with comment
Source: Mike Grost

 

George Harmon Coxe (1901-1984) was born in Olean, New York. He attended Purdue and Cornell University. Coxe worked for several West Coast newspapers and in advertising in New England. He married Elizabeth Fowler in 1929. His series characters include Flashgun Casey, Sam Crombie, Jack Fenner, Max Hale and Kent Murdock.

 

Coxe's Antecedents

 

One of Coxe's first crime stories is "Invited Witness" (1933). This little tale recalls Carroll John Daly. Its central character is an officer who has been criticized in the press for shooting too many crooks, just like Daly's trigger happy heroes. The protagonist shares his paranoid ideas about self protection during shoot outs, another Daly specialty. The story is little more than an episode; it sets forth its Daly like philosophy and closes down.

 

Coxe used three series detectives in his tales. Two were newspaper photographers who fought crime. Flashgun Casey appeared in the pulp Black Mask, whereas the similar Kent Murdock showed up in novels. It is often hard to tell the two detectives apart! Flashgun Casey is a technologically oriented person. Much is made of his camera equipment. Clues often come to him photographically. Another Coxe detective, Dr. Paul Standish, practiced medical detection in the early 1940's, somewhat in the spirit of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke. This means that Coxe has elements of Scientific Detection in his ancestry. However, he only occasionally emphasized these scientific aspects as much as most full fledged members of this school did. His Kent Murdock novel The Hollow Needle (1948) is among his most technological fiction.

 

Structure in the Flashgun Casey Stories

 

Coxe's Black Mask novella "Too Many Women" (1936) shows his personal variation on "the pulp style of plotting". There are a lot of separate groups of more or less crooked people running around in this tale. And sometimes, just as in the "pulp style", the reader is mystified about which group has done some act. But Coxe shows some differences as well. Often times, the big mystery is not who has done some act, but rather just what the identity of the characters are. Coxe introduces many of them earlier as simple faces in a photograph Flashgun Casey takes. We wait for each one to show up in the plot, and later still, for each one to be identified by name and profession. This gives a different feel to the tale. The reader is watching a design being built, watching each person fall into place in that design. Coxe's design here is delightful, and so is its unrolling in the story. There is a Mozartian progression to the tale, with each piece adding to the growing pattern of the story.

 

Coxe's plots tend to have a crime in the present that Flashgun is investigating. The suspects tend to have a long complex history of interaction, often around crooked schemes. Casey often finds hidden murders in the past, that help motivate the present killings, and provide plot surprises.

 

The Casey stories seem to gravitate towards the bad guys' apartments in later stages of the plot. These locations are fraught with menace, and often show the bad guys threatening the hero there.

 

Characterization and Relationships

 

Despite its title, "Too Many Women" is one of the least sexist stories to appear in Black Mask. It gradually accelerating cast of women characters wind up giving as good as they get. Their roles are equal to the men in the tale, something that was uncommon in "the he man magazine". The characterization of both the men and the women is not quite hard-boiled. The policeman Logan is refreshingly sensible and cooperative, and most of the people in the story are resilient and realistic without being nasty.

 

Casey's partnership with Logan is plainly important to him. Newspaperman Flashgun Casey and policeman Logan remind one a little of that earlier Black Mask pair, Frederick Nebel's drunken reporter Kennedy and policeman Steve MacBride, although Casey is a lot more responsible and sober than Nebel's dipsomaniac. Coxe's storytelling reminds one a little of Nebel's, as well. The newspaper setting allows the hero to be a working man, sensible and realistic. He does not have the gunman image of the private eye which descends from Daly, with wisecracks, constant violence and dames throwing themselves at him. Raoul Whitfield's "Inside Job" (1932) also has a newspaperman hero.

 

"Reward For Survivors" is notable for the intricate network it builds up among the good guys in the story. The warm feelings among these men seems to be very important to Casey, and to Coxe. This network includes the photographers and editors of two papers, the police, and various working guys Casey knows. This network is almost the mirror image of the group of villains in this, and other Coxe tales, who are also typically composed of a group of networked bad guys.

 

Flashgun Casey is a leader within his world. He is always being paired with some young news person who idolizes him: a woman cub reporter in "Too Many Women", and a young male photographer in "Reward For Survivors". Casey is a bit older than many pulp heroes, with gray temples suggesting his maturity. Kent Murdock will also be an older man, and a leader of younger newspaper employees, in such novels as Murder on Their Minds (1957).

 

In pulp stories, we are used to private eyes being good guys. But in the Flashgun Casey and Kent Murdock stories, private eyes seem frequently to be bad guys, sinister figures hired by other villains in the tale, but often branching out on their own. Casey himself is a newspaper man, not a p.i., and he works well with the police. There do not seem to be any sympathetic private detectives in this equation.

 

Kent Murdock

 

Some of the other Coxe fiction I've read is pretty indifferent, even unpleasant. The first Kent Murdock novel, the uninspired Murder with Pictures (1935), is one of the raciest of all Golden Age novels. The censors must really have been asleep on this one. Like his fellow Black Mask alumni Baynard Kendrick and Raymond Chandler, he seems determined to be as explicit as possible. This is a side of the world that is not really covered by the term "hard-boiled". Black Mask had been much more straight laced than this, at least in regards to male female relationships - the violence level allowed in pulps was another matter. All of this sleaze is in the first hardback books these authors wrote; their pulp stories seem much cleaner, as do their later hardback novels. Was this a reaction to the censorship of the pulps - an expression of freedom when they found hardback book publication? Was the raciness a strategy to get these little known authors published in book form? After all, these three writers were nearly complete unknowns when they made the transition from pulps to books. Was the raciness encouraged for artistic regions, by editors, perhaps? Were all three of these men part of an artistic movement that advocated frankness and naturalism?

 

One problem with the Great Artist treatment Chandler often gets today is that these questions do not get asked. Chandler is considered as a Literary writer, and everything he ever wrote is considered to be a personal artistic expression for him, pure and simple. If The Big Sleep (1939) is incredibly sordid compared with most other American novels, whether literary or mysterious, it must simply be because Chandler wanted it that way.

 

A later Murdock novel, The Glass Triangle (1940), is much better written. Some of the vignettes dealing with a company of film people are well done, especially in Chapters 1 and 7. An absorbing middle section in the book (Chapters 5 - 13) deals with an attempt by the villains to cover up the crime, and Murdock's effort to counter the same. This section shows Coxe's skill with plot construction and story telling. The man to man relationships that build up between Murdock and the policeman investigating the case, and the suspect Ben Pollard, show Coxe's interest in male bonding. Unfortunately, the story eventually completely unravels into one of those tales in which numerous different suspects all engage in some sinister activity, making the final explanation an endless group of coincidences. Such finales violate Occam's Razor.

 

The Hollow Needle (1948) has a good opening section (Chapters 1 - 7), which sets up the basic situation of the novel. This section shows inventive storytelling. Kent Murdock develops a friendship with ambiguous tough guy Nick Taylor, in the Coxe tradition of male bonding. The book takes place in that Golden Age staple, the isolated mansion in the country, with the wealthy family and their servants as suspects. It has a more hard-boiled feel than most such tales, however, with various bodyguards and enforcers constantly present. This mixing of hard-boiled and Golden Age approaches is typical of Coxe. The description of Nick Taylor as a "thug in a Brooks suit" epitomizes this mix of the genteel and the hard-boiled. Murdock himself is a combination of a two-fisted newspaperman and a social sophisticate: he is always very well dressed. The use of science and technology throughout is also typical of Coxe, and forms a fusion with the tale of scientific detection, bringing a third school of mystery fiction into the mix.

 

The architecture of the house and grounds is elaborately described; different rooms and corridors tend to be associated with different people. The opening has a dream-like feel. We only get glimpses of the various denizens of the house. This makes them seem like characters in a dream.

 

As in The Glass Triangle, the plot involves criminal schemes to cover up crimes, and Murdock's efforts to uncover them. The Hollow Needle of the title is a piece of broken glass from a technological device, just like The Glass Triangle of the earlier book.

 

Murder on Their Minds (1957) is a Kent Murdock novel from the middle of Coxe's career. It is smoothly written, and much less hard-boiled than Coxe's earlier fiction, although its overall story construction resembles the "pulp style of plotting", with disparate characters interacting to commit the events of the tale. It is at its best in Chapters 1-9, which detail the activities of a plethora of newspaper men, photographers, police and private eyes, all of which are investigating a number of stories and mysteries. They make a pleasantly interlocking grid of activity. There are some good portrayals here of the male bonding between Murdock and the other characters. It also offers an inside look at the professional approaches of all these characters, including the lives of newspaper photographers. Coxe includes precise descriptions of the offices and work areas of his heroes. Although simple, these recall the Golden Age tradition of interest in architecture. The story becomes less interesting in later chapters, when the focus shifts to the suspects in the mystery, and away from the lives of newspaper employees and detectives. The story shows Coxe's skepticism about guns, and the people who use them. Coxe's heroes instead tend to use technological equipment, such as cameras.

 

Non-Series Books

 

One Minute Past Eight (1957) is one of the many non-series novels that Coxe wrote throughout his career. Many of these take place in exotic locales; this one is set in Venezuela. The approach recalls Richard Sale tales set in the Caribbean, such as Destination Unknown (1940). The story also involves communication through cables, which recall Helen McCloy's The Goblin Market (1943), another Caribbean mystery. One Minute Past Eight has a well written first half (Chapters 1-9), which offers a nice combination of adventure and mystery. This section also includes some pleasantly mysterious characters, whose background is gradually elucidated. Unfortunately the book runs out of steam here. And the solution to the actual murder mystery, in Chapters 20 and 22, is perfunctory. The novel mixes hard-boiled and middle class characters, in Coxe's pleasant style. There is an overtone of respectability about everything concerning Coxe's hero, a nice young businessman from Boston, who has something of the same smoothness and decency as Kent Murdock. But the hero also gets innocently mixed up with a whole series of shady or tough characters in his adventures, just as Murdock does in his.

 

The Hollow Needle states that Joseph Conrad is a favorite writer of Coxe's series detective Kent Murdock. Coxe's own novels set in exotic places follow the Conrad tradition. Conrad, like Coxe, is also a writer that mixes many schools of fiction, using a fusion of eclectic approaches in his writing.

 

Bibliography

 

Murder With Pictures (1937)

The Barotique Mystery (1937) aka Murdock's Acid Test

The Camera Clue (1938)

Four Frightened Women (1939) aka The Frightened Woman

Murder for the Asking (1940)

The Glass Triangle (1940) No UK edition

The Lady is Afraid (1940)

Mrs Murdock Takes a Case (1949)

No Time to Kill (1941) No UK

Assignment in Guiana (1943)

The Charred Witness (1949)

Silent are the Dead (1942) No UK

Alias the Dead (1945)

Murder for Two (1944)

Murder in Havana (1945)

The Groom Lay Dead (1946)

The Jade Venus (1947)

Woman at Bay (1948)

Dangerous Legacy (1949)

Fashioned for Murder (1950)

The Fifth Key (1950)

The Hollow Needle (1952)

Venturous Lady (1951)

Inland Passage (1953)

Lady Killer (1952)

Eye Witness (1953)

The Frightened Fiancee (1953)

The Man Who Died Twice (1955)

The Widow had a Gun (1954)

Never Bet Your Life (1955)

The Crimson Clue (1955)

Uninvited Guest (1956)

Death at the Isthmus (1956)

Focus on Murder (1956)

Top Assignment (1957)

Man on a Rope (1958)

Suddenly a Widow (1957)

Murder on Their Minds (1958)

One Minute Past Eight (1959)

The Big Gamble (1960)

The Impetuous Mistress (1959)

Slack Tide (1960)

The Last Commandment (1961)

One Way Out (1961)

Error of Judgement (1962)

Moment of Violence (1962)

The Man Who Died Too Soon (1963)

Mission of Fear (1963)

The Hidden Key (1964)

One Hour to Kill (1964)

Deadly Image (1964)

The Reluctant Heiress (1966)

With Intent to Kill (1965)

The Ring of Truth (1967)

The Candid Imposter (1969)

An Easy Way to Go (1969)

Double Identity (1971)

Fenner (1973)

Woman with a Gun (1974)

The Silent Witness (1974)

The Inside Man (1975)

No Place for Murder (1976)

 

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