George Harmon Coxe’s brief career as a newspaperman proved a determining factor in the style and structure of his detective fiction. Avoiding the more scientific, logical approach of the Arthur Conan Doyle school, Coxe concentrated on the development of characterization, personality, and human fallibility. His victims generally die in conventional ways: They are shot, stabbed, or occasionally, as in Eye Witness (1950), bludgeoned to death. A cast of characters is assembled; they are then tracked and observed by the detective hero. The plot proceeds like a journalism primer, raising and gradually answering a series of who, what, when, where, why, and how questions.
Coxe had been publishing detective stories for more than two years when he sold the first Flashgun Casey story, “Return Engagement,” to Black Mask in the spring of 1934. The idea of a news photographer as a detective hero was a genuine innovation in the crime-fiction market, then largely the province of sleuthing lawyers, reporters, and private investigators. It came directly from Coxe’s personal experience. From his own days as a reporter, he knew that “while the reporter with his pad and pencil could describe a warehouse . . . fire from a safe distance,” it was the photographer who accompanied him who “had to edge far closer to get a negative that would merit reproduction.” For Coxe, it was a case of giving the photographer his due.
The other fictional creation for which Coxe is known is Kent Murdock. Both Murdock and Casey are Boston newspaper photographers, but it was Casey who brought Coxe a strong following from the time of his debut in Black Mask. Closer to the hard-boiled school of Hammett and Chandler than is Murdock, Casey is frequently isolated by self-induced conflict, having antagonized editors, police, and the criminal element. For all of his rough edges, however, Casey is a highly appealing character, both compassionate and sentimental. Like Murdock, he is a combat veteran, having served as an American Expeditionary Force sergeant in France in 1918. Both Casey and Murdock are for the most part uncynical and, when the question arises, patriotic. Although wartime combat seems a sine qua non, Coxe’s emphasis lies in developing his two most memorable creations, shaping interesting, clearly delineated characters, rather than in portraying action and violence.
Murder with Pictures
Kent Murdock first appeared in the 1935 novel Murder with Pictures and is what Coxe himself has termed a “smoothed-up version” of Jack Casey—the Boston photographer polished and reshaped for an expanded audience. Coxe’s reasons for the reshaping were more practical than they were literary. He believed that Murdock, “not unlike Casey in many ways . . . but better dressed and better mannered,” would be “more appropriate for a book.”
Ironically, Casey has been the more enduring of the two. Although only six novels were written about him, Casey appeared in dozens of short stories as well as a radio series and two feature films: Women Are Trouble (1936) and Here’s Flash Casey (1937). One of the reasons many readers may have identified with Casey is that unlike most fictional detectives, he ages over the years. At his inception he is about thirty-two. By the time he appears in Deadly Image (1964), his hair is graying and he has put on weight. By Coxe’s own reckoning, Casey in the final book is about forty-five, but his wit and perception remain as sharp as ever.
For a time, Coxe apparently entertained the possibility of a Mr. and Mrs. Kent Murdock as a detective team, perhaps along the lines of Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. Joyce...
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