Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Barotique Mystery - George Harmon Coxe

George Harmon Coxe was one of the Black Mask boys whose unique creation, a hard nosed newspaper photographer named "Flashgun" Casey, appeared in numerous stories in that pulp magazine as well as two novels. Coxe created a spin-off of Casey in Kent Murdock. He's also a newspaper photographer but slightly less tough and bit more presentable for a book reading public. He had a much longer life than Casey who advanced to a radio show and practically disappeared from Coxe's books. Murdock took over as the lead series character in Coxe's novel going on to star in over twenty books from the 1930s to the early 1970s.

Kent Murdock made his debut in Murder with Pictures (1935) in which he first meets his wife-to-be Joyce when she barges into his apartment after fleeing a murder scene. To escape a policeman hot on her tail she jumps into the shower with Murdock naked inside making for a very intimate accidental "first date." His less racy sophomore appearance is in The Barotique Mystery. He and Joyce are now married and they team up to solve the violent crimes in one of the many murder-on-a-honeymoon novels from the Golden Age of detective fiction.

While vacationing in the Caribbean, not far from Trinidad, Murdock and his wife take a ferry to the private island of Barotique. There they will meet up with Joyce's college girlfriend Margaret, daughter to millionaire Sir Stanley Bannister, owner of the island. Also on the island are a motley group of American tourists including a small time hood Murdock knows from his newspaper beat back in Boston. The hood, Brick Egan, is traveling under an alias along with two other underworld figures also using noms de guerre. Needless to say with gangsters hiding out in the tropics there is bound to be some gunfire, knives pulled, fistfights and one or two dead bodies before the final page is turned.

This is a book of the semi-tough hardboiled school. I've seen it described as soft-boiled crime fiction elsewhere, but I dislike that term as it is more evocative of greasy spoon diners than books. Murdock is not reluctant to threw a few punches and has a bit of a temper he expresses verbally in his grilling of the suspects.

There is a large cast of characters all with the requisite secrets they want kept hidden. The men fare better than the women here. Two of the female characters are more ornaments than fully fleshed out characters. Apart from Joyce the best of the female members of the cast are Nina Coleman, the femme fatale of the piece and referred to as Lady Macbeth by Joyce, and Flo Anderson, the gangster's gold-digging moll and an ex-chorus girl. Lucy Porter, the battered wife of the first murder victim, is practically a cipher. But Kay Joslin is the invisible woman of the book. She is talked about often but appears only once onstage and is conveniently wandering the island offstage for most of the book. Granted this is Coxe's second novel and he probably hadn't yet mastered dealing with a large cast in a closed setting. It seemed to me that five of the characters could've been eliminated altogether.

The gimmick in the early Murdock novels is his use of photography to help solve the crimes. He takes and collects incriminating pictures to present to the police later on. In this book Bannister is an amateur photographer himself and in the cellar of the main house on the estate there is a handy dark room that Murdock uses to his advantage. He also uses his camera to trick the killer into forcing a hand and has Joyce in hiding ready to snap the guilty party to cement proof of an already partially verbal confession. In other books his camera or the photos he takes are stolen, and there is plenty of chasing after them or the crucial negatives.

Interestingly this predates many of Raymond Chandler's better known novels by several years. It has a real Chandleresque feel to it plot-wise even if the gritty urban setting is replaced by a steamy tropical paradise. But it does not approach, or even attempt to copy, Chandler's metaphor strewn prose so often imitated these days. A tough minded, wise-cracking photographer with a knowledge of police work from his many years shooting film at crime scenes, Kent Murdock makes a good detective. Add to the mix double-crossing gangsters, blackmailers, brawls in the jungle, a switchblade that disappears then reappears and the usual hardboiled tricks with guns and bullets and it's hard not to think of this as another emulation of a Philip Marlowe adventure. Chronologically speaking it clearly is not.

This first sampling of Kent Murdock whetted my appetite for more. He makes for a likeable if stubborn detective with a steadfast determination to get at the truth. The vintage camera talk and early photography trivia make them all the more intriguing to me as I'm a bit of an amateur photographer myself. The first five books in the series are lined up in a new TBR pile and I'll be reviewing those in the months ahead.

5 comments:

  1. There are actually five "Flashgun" Casey novels. The first two appeared in the 1940s followed by an additional three more in the early 60s. Yes, I did a bit of research on the character a few years ago when I was listening to a lot of OTR mysteries, and even ended up buying two Coxe novels, one from each series, but never read them.

    I love the mapback of this one!

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  2. These sound so good, John. I don't think I've ever read any though the author's name is very familiar to me.

    I think I'm just going to have to make a separate list for vintage mystery writers rather than just have tnem mixed in with my general list.

    I need to organize a bit. Watch out world. Whenever I try to organize, some disaster befalls either me or the world. Ha!

    But I'm serious. I feel as if all these books are passing me by in some sort of bizarro space time continuum.

    I need to get a handle on things.

    John: a question. Have you ever heard of Maureen Sarfield's Inspector Lane Parry books? There were, I believe, only about four and then the writer herself disappeared.

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  3. Just like your Nero Wolfe kick a couple weeks ago I'm on a Kent Murdock kick. Truthfully, it's more of a Coxe kick because I found another treasure trove of The American Magazine and some of them have GHC stories in them. Hope you all don't get tired of reading about him in the days ahead.

    You have not stumped me today, Yvette. I have heard of Maureen Sarsfield and I own both her books.

    GREEN DECEMBER FILLS THE GRAVEYARD is her debut -- such an ominously brilliant title. Has to be from some poem or work of literature, but I'm darned if I know. Inspector Parry is a perfect candidate for my "Neglected Detectives" series. I may have to write him up in the fall...unless you beat me to it. ;^) Have you read these books? Or are you planning to read them?

    She only wrote two mystery novels and both are reissued by Rue Morgue Press. Both were given bland titles I think to make them sound more like murder mysteries and not scare off less adventurous readers. But I do dislike the practice of changing a writer's title - especially in this case after her death when she can't even say anything about it.

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  4. John: Is she definitely dead then? I couldn't find any information when I looked a few years ago. I first heard about her through that oh so wonderful (and now defunct) Common Readers Catalogue.

    They had her books on sale at one point and I didn't move quick enough to buy them.

    They hinted that there was something mysterious about her disappearance or the reasons why she stopped writing.

    One of these days when I find them, I will see about reading them. :)

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  5. Back in the 50s and 60s, Coxe was one of my favorite mystery writers. The Dollar Mystery Guild used to offer two or three books of his per year.

    I still go back and read him every once in a while, including the older ones. I seem to have missed this one, though. Your description of the plot doesn't bring back any memories.

    I like your coining of the phrase "semi-tough hard-boiled." I think it fits the Murdock books to a T. I tend to favor the Casey books more, but Kent Murdock always is a good read -- for all the reasons you point out.

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