'The Photographer Detective: On The Career of George H. Coxe' by J. Randolph Cox

George Harmon CoxeGeorge Harmon Coxe was called “the professional’s professional” by critic Anthony Boucher and a “master of the art of the detective novel” by Yale professor William Lyon Phelps. Erle Stanley Gardner referred to his books as “uniformly entertaining, gripping, and exciting.” These were phrases to gladden a publicist’s heart and were concise enough to fit on a book jacket or in a newspaper advertisement. He was the first to use a photographer in the role of a detective. But the real legacy was the unspoken one from the readers. Thousands of them simply enjoyed his characters, especially the secondary ones like Jack Fenner whenever he appeared in the Kent Murdock novels or Logan in the Casey stories.

Some readers appreciated him as a straightforward storyteller with few sub-plots, little concern for societal relevance and no extraneous love stories, extensive exposition or recapitulation of events. His readers became involved with the characters from the first page and continued to read to find out what would happen next. Things happened to Coxe’s characters and there was a good use of dramatic conflict told in a deceptively formal style. The structure of a Coxe story was a simple one: someone had something that was worth stealing, some one else was after that treasure and the hero had to work toward the resolution of the situation taking the reader with him.

Newer readers have come upon his world of fiction almost by accident when they found some of his books on a library shelf or bought some of them at a Friends of the Library book sale. One such reader recognized characteristics Coxe had in common with Erle Stanley Gardner, whom she had read, and trusted the newly discovered author not to disappoint her. After awhile she found there were mysteries within mysteries as major characters in one book didn’t appear in each book in the same series and she went back to read them again in order of publication to learn for example just what had happened to Joyce Murdock, Kent Murdock’s wife.

For this reader, and many like her, Coxe’s books were a great escape and she found a certain amount of pleasure and comfort in the predictable situations and familiar personalities of the characters. She enjoyed revisiting the exotic settings of the Caribbean novels and becoming reacquainted with characters like Kent Murdock and Jack Casey. In short, she found the novels a good, old-fashioned read.

George Harmon Coxe was born in Olean, New York, but grew up in Elmira, coincidentally the same town as Fred Dannay, half of the Ellery Queen team. He had a short career in newspapers in the eastern United States, but in advertising and not as a reporter. Like many other writers before him his path to writing fiction was in the pulps, first for Street & Smith and other publishers and then for the legendary Black Mask where he wrote short stories about photographer Jack Casey. The rumpled, hot-tempered Casey may be his best character and was the hero of a CBS radio show, Crime Photographer that aired from 1943 to 1955. Casey’s continued popularity resulted in his being revived for three novels in the 1960s.

The plot of almost any Casey story can be summed up as a triple conflict: Casey is after a photo that represents a news story; the crooks don’t want him to get the photo; the police don’t want him to interfere. In every instance, the reader needs to know what will happen next. In these days of digital cameras there’s a certain nostalgia in reading about film and photographic plates.

Flashgun CaseyIn 1935 Coxe published his first novel Murder with Pictures. His publisher for that and the rest of his 62 novels was the prestigious Alfred A. Knopf who had published Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. He continued writing about a newspaper photographer, but he didn’t think Casey was right for that first novel. Instead he created a new character, Kent Murdock, a sophisticated photographer for the Boston Courier-Herald (later just the Courier). Murdock is at ease in situations where Casey might feel out of place and this provides a greater variety of plots. Murdock is married in the early books, but Joyce fades from the scene after awhile.

There’s more to Kent Murdock than just a guy who is good with a camera and has a knack for getting into trouble by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. College-educated and with an interest in cameras that goes back to the age of 12 when his father gave him one for his birthday, Murdock realizes the camera helped him work his way through college while the education taught him to like the good things in life that only money could buy: good clothes and how to drink, good books and art. He’s drawn into detective work naturally by being where the mystery starts. The stories are not as rough and tumble as the Casey stories, but there are still times when someone will pull a gun on him and he knows he’s in familiar territory. In the books published during the Second World War he is a museum and monument officer with the task of recovering and preserving art objects so they can be restored to their rightful owners.

Nearly half of Coxe’s novels don’t belong to a series with a continuing hero. A dozen books have miscellaneous settings and heroes, another fifteen are set in the Caribbean, an area Coxe visited more than once and knew well. He took notes for the earliest of these, Assignment in Guiana, when he was living there in the 1930s writing his first Kent Murdock book. Coxe knew how to interview members of the local police in order to get his facts straight. It is largely a tourist’s-eye-view of the Caribbean that we are given, but a very real one for all of that. The people of his fictional world encounter danger at the same level as his readers might imagine themselves doing, danger in the nightclubs and on the beaches, as well as on yachts and other vessels. The natives are seen in their professional capacities as business types or police officers, fulfilling their parts in the stories in the most natural way. There are no machete fights in the jungle or entrapments in dark alleys. Anyone who chooses a good mystery novel for the foreign locales would enjoy these works of George Harmon Coxe.


J. Randolph Cox is the co-author with David S. Siegel of 'Flashgun Casey, Crime Photographer: From the Pulps to Radio and Beyond'. This definitive history of the character may be ordered from www.bearmanormedia.com ($18.95) or directly from J. Randolph Cox, P.O. Box 226, Dundas, MN 55019 ($15.00 postpaid) for an autographed copy.

MysteriousPress.com is currently offering 20 of Coxe's books. You can find them at this link

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