Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rub-a-dub-dub, There's a Dame in My Tub: Murder with Pictures (1935), by George Harmon Coxe

George Harmon Coxe (1901-1984) is one of those 1930s American hard-boiled detective writers who started writing novels in between the appearances of The Thin Man (1934) and The Big Sleep (1939), but he doesn't get much attention, because, well, he's not Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, is he?  But that's a high standard to set, to be sure.

Coxe's first crime novel, Murder with Pictures (which first appeared in 1935, not 1937, as seems to be the date given on the net bibliographies), is certainly not in the league with Hammett and Chandler, yet I found the book interesting, though admittedly more as a social document than a tale of detection.

"Is that your bath brush
or are you just happy to see me?"
Probably what made the greatest impression with Coxe's first novel was the scene where the knock-out blonde, Joyce Archer, bursts into the apartment of our hero, newspaper photographer Kent Murdock, while he is taking a shower.  Demanding that she let him hide in the shower, she barges right in there with him (it's one of those footed tubs with a circular shower curtain).

Gee, just make yourself at home lady!

This blonde had caught Murdock's eye at a party earlier that morning and he's a game fellow anyway, so he plays along, bantering the cops who shortly show up in his place too, as she cowers behind him.

In the fashion of these sort of tales, it seems that Joyce Archer found herself on the murder scene at another apartment (the one where the aforementioned party took place) and naturally she picked up the gun, getting her fingerprints all over it...well, you've heard this one before, right?  I'm pretty sure this happens in every other Mignon Eberhart novel, for example.

Why did Joyce show up at the murder victim's apartment at 4:30 in the morning, you may be asking?  Well, it seems she feared that her brother, wealthy and dissolute man-about-town Howard Archer, was going there to run off with the wife of the murder victim (Mark Redfield, ace defense attorney, by the by).  This is another convention in mysteries of this era: nice girls can always be counted on to get themselves in heaps of trouble on account of their feckless brothers.

Oh, yes, despite her evident propensity to jump in showers with naked newspaper photographers, Joyce is indeed a nice girl.  Blogger John Norris has already reviewed the second Kent Murdock mystery, The Barotique Mystery, in which Kent and Joyce are on their honeymoon, so it won't spoil anything to tell you that they are about to get hitched at the end of Murder with Pictures.

I think back in the 1930s a couple had to get married if they spent any time in a shower together--well, at least when one of them was naked, anyway.

In a Hammett, Chandler or James M. Cain novel, Joyce would be that dreaded thing, a femme fatale, and either shot dead or adorned in bracelets as she's carted off to the paddy wagon, but Coxe's novel is more semi-tough than tough and spares us this sort of unpleasantness.

In fact Murder with Pictures is not so different, it seems to me, from a classical detective novel in its resolution (admittedly the incident is more colorful, in terms of sexual innuendo, gunplay and manly fisticuffs).  Order is rather nicely restored by the end of the tale, with Kent Murdock's estranged current wife, one of those low class calculating chorus girl hussies, effectively bought off, leaving him free to marry good girl Joyce.  Oh, and Kent solves the murder too (all of this is expertly dovetailed by Coxe).

I was engaged less with the mystery than with Murdock's efforts to get everything straightened out satisfactorily.  Murdock likely served as something of a role model for some of Coxe's readers.

We are informed that Murdock had three years of college, where he learned to like books and fine things (he has a copy of Green Mansions in his apartment), and that he's presentable in classy company; yet he's not an effete twit like that rich playboy Howard Archer.  He has a sense of honor that Howard lacks and he knows the value of honest work.  As Joyce says, he's just not like those other, cocktail-swilling society boys she knows, unlike them, he does things.

George Harmon Coxe (1901-1984)
Coxe himself attended college for two years (one year at Purdue and another at Cornell), before trying work at all sorts of places: auto factory, lumber camp, dance orchestra.  Eventually he became a--surprise!--journalist; his hobbies included--surprise!--photography.

We often read how 1930s hard-boiled fiction was ideologically subversive or politically left.  I didn't get the sense of that from Murder with Pictures.  Heck, Coxe even defends Boston cops:

Neither man was brilliant, neither was spectacular, unduly imaginative, or blessed with more than average intelligence.  But in their own line of work, which as often dull and almost always routine, both were hard, competent, and so honest they leaned over backward.

Just to prove this, Murdock doesn't get beaten to a pulp by a cop even once, or even slapped around a bit.  Heck, the cops actually like Murdock.

I don't imagine I will ever be tempted to read this particular mystery again, but I probably will read something else by George Harmon Coxe, something, I hope, with a bit stronger plot (this was his first novel, after all).  But Murder with Pictures was not without interest.

Note 1: Apparently it was adapted into a film as well.  I would love to hear from anyone who has seen the film.

Note 2: A number of George Harmon Coxe novels now are available as eBooks from Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press.  And of course there's always the used market!  Back in his day, Coxe was quite popular in paperback.


  1. Sounds great Curt - Coxe is an author's whose work I used to come across quite often in my youth in Italy but I don't believe I ever actually read one. This one dounds like fun (shower scene included - have you ever seen the movie ARABESQUE? Has a very amusing one with Peck and Loren sharing a booth witht he villain hovering on the otherside of the curtain).

  2. I have a copy of 1936's "Murder with Pictures" -- somewhere in my messy archives -- with Lew Ayres as Kent Murdock. It has a good deal of humour, as I recall, a nice balance of funny and serious. Murdock's shrewish wife evokes quite a bit of human interest. Get in touch directly if you really want to see it.

  3. I intended to do a post on three more Kent Murdock novels last year, but never got around to it. I enjoyed this one and the others that I've read (all from his 1930s period). I like Murdock a lot. The photography angle was a good gimmick for a detective novel series.

    Many of the crime fiction bibliographies on the internet are compiled by people in the UK or Australia and they use dates only from the UK editions without any regard to whether or not the author is American and had an earlier true 1st edition published in the US. Hubin will always be my Bible as far as publication dates go if the volume is not in my own library. The internet is nothing more than one gigantic cut and paste error as far as crime fiction bibliographies -- especially detective fiction -- are concerned.

    At the risk of riling Sergio I will mention that Murder with Pictures with Lew Ayres and Gail Patrick can be viewed in its entirety here.

  4. I've read quite a few of Coxe's Kent Murdock novels. I enjoyed most of them. For a while Murdock and his wife Joyce were a crime-solving team before Coxe sort of moved Joyce off stage (visiting relatives and what-not). I think he decided she was becoming too dominant a character.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thanks everyone for the comments.

    I liked the Coxe book enough to want to read somethign further about Kent and Joyce. Am definitely interested in the film as well.