The Legacy of George Harmon Coxe, by James Reasoner
There was a time – I remember it well – when you could go into just about any public library in the United States and find a dozen or more novels by George Harmon Coxe on the shelves in the mystery section. And for good reason, too. Coxe's career lasted for 40 years and 63 novels, and he was one of the most consistently entertaining of the hardboiled mystery novelists.
Born in Olean, N.Y., in 1901, Coxe attended Purdue and Cornell, was a newspaperman (a background that would greatly influence his later work), and worked in advertising before he began selling short fiction regularly to the mystery pulps. Beginning in the mid-Thirties, he was successful enough to concentrate full-time on writing fiction and became one of the leading authors in the legendary pulp Black Mask with a series of tough, well-plotted stories about Boston news photographer Jack "Flash Gun" Casey. Flash, as he was usually known, was big, hot-tempered, fiercely loyal to his friends, and a better detective than he gave himself credit for.
A couple of years later, Coxe moved into novels with his debut Murder With Pictures, which featured another Boston news photographer, Kent Murdock. Murdock was a slicker version of Flash Casey, not quite as quick to use his fists and slightly more urbane, but he could still be plenty tough when he needed to be. Since they worked in the same town, you would think that Murdock and Casey would cross paths more often than they did, but occasional mentions in the Murdock novels made it clear that the two of them knew each other.
Starting out, Casey was the more successful character, appearing not only in Black Mask but also in a popular radio show and a couple of novels. Casey turned up as well, in a short-lived TV series in the early days of television with Darren McGavin playing the hardnosed news photographer (good casting). Murdock, meanwhile, got a more solid footing in novels, as they appeared on a regular basis from Coxe during the second half of the Thirties and on through the Forties and Fifties.
Coxe went to Hollywood for a couple of years, supplying stories to the studios, but few of them were produced and he seems to have preferred writing novels, so he went back to that with continued success. He also contributed a number of stories to such slick magazines as Cosmopolitan, Collier's, Liberty, and The American Magazine, including a series about a doctor/detective named Paul Standish.
By the Sixties, Coxe was one of the stalwarts of mystery fiction, continuing to produce one or two well-regarded novels year in and year out, leading the Mystery Writers of America to name him a Grand Master in 1964. A private detective named Jack Fenner appeared several times as a supporting character in Kent Murdock novels, so Coxe spun Fenner off as the lead in yet another series. He also wrote a number of stand-alone mystery novels. His final novel, No Place For Murder, was published in 1976, and he died in 1984.
Coxe had a number of strengths as a writer, most notably his ability to put together strong, complex plots and to create tough, likable heroes. His prose, like his protagonists, is blunt and straightforward, interested primarily in moving the story along. The Boston setting isn't very distinctive and doesn't play much of a role in the novels, but in his stand-alones Coxe was capable of creating much more colorful backgrounds, especially in those novels set in the Caribbean. Since Casey and Murdock work for newspapers, Coxe's own history allows him to give a real sense of authenticity to the newsrooms, darkrooms, and editorial offices of major metropolitan newspapers.
Nearly all of Coxe's work has been out of print for years, but recently MysteriousPress.com has brought back a number of his novels as ebooks, which I think is a well-deserved revival. I just read one of them I hadn't read before, 1942's Silent Are The Dead, the first full-length novel featuring Flash Casey. It's a fine example of Coxe's work. Former assistant district attorney Stanford Endicott, who has gone into private practice, gets into trouble with the law himself and winds up being murdered.
Casey, on the trail of a good photograph for his paper, finds the body, of course, and that launches him into a hectic and dangerous few days as he tries to unravel a plot that approaches the complexity of Erle Stanley Gardner's early Perry Mason novels. There are a couple of beautiful young women involved, along with another news photographer, a disgraced former reporter, a shady private detective, a gangster from New York, a pair of hired killers who set their sights on Casey, assorted cops, shootouts, fistfights, blackmail and more murders, and even a poignant ending. It's all great fun and a wonderful reminder of why I've enjoyed Coxe's work so much over the years. These well-crafted mystery novels deserve to be reread by long-time fans and to find a new audience as well.
Spur Award nominee James Reasoner is one of the most prolific and in-demand Western writers working today, with more than 200 books to his credit, both under his own name and under various pen-names. In recent years he has written a ten-book series of historical novels set during the Civil War and several historical novels about World War II. He lives in Texas with his wife, award-winning mystery novelist Livia J. Washburn.
MysteriousPress.com is currently offering 20 of Coxe's books. You can find them at this link.
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