The New Yorker described George Harmon Coxe as “perfect for addicts of the talk-out-of-the-side-of-your-mouth school” (dust jacket Dangerous Legacy). Indeed, the main characters of his 1940s mysteries are the tough but smart type seen in noir or noiresque films by Alan Ladd, Dana Andrews, Dick Powell, or John Payne. Though Coxe started writing and publishing in the mid-1930s, as in many post-war films, Coxe came to create main characters who are either still in the service or are discharged soldiers, psychologically hampered by the war, trying to find their place in a new world order of corruption, larceny, deception, and murder. Not surprisingly, the cinematic style of his prose reflects his own script writing and story development experience in Hollywood in the 1930s (Reasoner; Fantastic Fiction).
As well as stand alone mysteries, Coxe created two series: Jack Casey and Kent Murdock, both crime-news photographers operating out of Boston. In the war time and post-war tales of both types, Coxe’s leads have been toughened by a brutal service stint yet are fundamentally decent. In an uncertain post-war world, they struggle to maintain loyalty to comrades, find an emotional mate, and free themselves from past psychological baggage in order not to be crushed by big-league con artists who have risen to power, cloaking their corruption with respectability and wealth.
In Dark Legacy, Rance Spenser, a former flyer, gets in over his head and must learn to use his smarts rather than just his temper and his fists to avenge the murder of his old friend Ulio Kane in the Philippines. To do so, Spenser must learn to outplay a smooth, insidious former collaborator who has finagled and strong-armed his way to political power in Manila. The Groom Lay Dead gives us Alan Wallace, discharged for wounds received at Guadacanal, which cripple him less than his need to overcompensate for his injuries. He ends up at the estate of a surface-charming but actually heartless, manipulative guy who has married Wallace’s former fiancée. This groom’s odd murder in a wine cellar puts a resentful Wallace on the spot. His attempts to reconcile that resentment and his love for the former fiancée are the half the struggle to clearing himself and finding the culprit. The novels are reminiscent of the personal and class conflicts of restless ex-vets in Singapore, Calcutta, and The High Wall.
Unlike the previous two stand-alone mysteries, The Jade Venus is an entry in Coxe’s Kent Murdock series. Normally a crime photographer for a paper in Boston, Murdock plays a Monuments Man at the end of the war (think of Crack-Up, 1947), tracing a shipment of masterpieces from Italy (preserved from Nazi pilfering) to the U.S. The catch is his odd interest in some lesser pieces in the collection. Murdock’s playing the left side of the law to unravel the murder of a friend connected to those pieces sets him delving into the dark side of homefront deceptions and betrayals.
Coxe’s portrayal of women is worth considering, as well. The femmes can be pretty darned fatale. Louise Andrada of The Jade Venus, is just as sexy, clever, and manipulative as Clare Trevor in Murder My Sweet or Born to Kill. Claire Maynard in Dark Legacy could give Patricia Morrison in almost anything a run for her money as clever, alluring, and dangerously misleading. Yet both can be eminently likeable at times and definitely human. On the other hand, the “good girls” are hardly sweet little ingénues. They may not be hard as nails, but they’re usually sassy and smart, tell-it-like-is sorts. Unintimidated by hero or heavy, they’re unafraid to go toe to toe with both. It’s their square shootin’ cast of character that wins the protagonist as much as their good hearts. Think Ella Raines, Joan Bennett and Lynn Bari when they’re playing on the side of the angels.
Coxe’s writing itself is pretty nifty, economical rather than sere. His descriptions of settings and mood beautifully capture the deception darkening a Manila trying to rebuild, socially as well as physically, after its despoliation and corruption by Japanese occupation. His San Francisco and Boston provide paint strokes of the actual places to anchor the dream of slick streets, shadowy alleys, darkened manses, and late city nights. Coxe does give some description of his characters’ inner workings but, generally, lets their own thoughts and actions reveal who they are. The prose is delicious to savor without leaving you feeling overstuffed.
Finally, Coxe’s tales twist and turn like the best of noirs, making you uncertain whom to trust. Sometimes, you are so busy enjoying the writing that you forget to look for clues amongst his hefty yet well-developed cast of characters. In fact, sometimes half the fun is casting those characters from the ranks of film noir players.
Coxe isn’t as dark as David Goodis; he doesn’t have the heft of subtle social criticism of Margaret Millar; he doesn’t go for the tongue in cheek tone of Frances Crane or Craig Rice. Yet he is definitely a writer who satisfies with his creation of humans picking their way through a labyrinth of noir reality to find themselves as well as the hidden truth they seek.
For more detail on George Harmon Coxe and his writings, check out the following web sites: “The Legacy of George Harmon Coxe” by James Reasoner and “George Harmon Coxe” Fantastic Fiction.
George Harmon Coxe image: author’s collection, dust jacket of Dangerous Legacy
Cover of The Groom Lay Dead, author’s collection, dustjacke
Destroyed Manila Post Office, Wickipedia .
Patricia Morrison Photo: Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings.
Other actress photos, author’s collection