Friday, June 02, 2023

The Frightened Fiancee -- George Harmon Coxe

George Harmon Coxe was a prolific pulpster, contributing scores of detective and adventure yarns to BLACK MASK, ARGOSY, BLUE BOOK, and other pulps. For BLACK MASK, he created a long-running series starring crime photographer Jack “Flashgun” Casey, who also served as the protagonist in several of Coxe’s novels. Coxe became a very successful mystery novelist in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. When I was a kid, every public library had a couple of shelves of his books, all published by Knopf, in their mystery sections. Most of those books featured another crime photographer character, Kent Murdock, who was slightly more sophisticated than the two-fisted Flash Casey.

But Coxe wrote quite a few stand-alone novels, too, and one of them is THE FRIGHTENED FIANCÉE, published by Knopf in 1950, reprinted in paperback by Dell in 1955, and still available today as an e-book. The protagonist is oil company engineer John Holland, who returns from a business trip to find the girl he loves engaged to another man. Before leaving, Holland had asked her to marry him, but she got him to agree to a 30-day delay before she gave him her answer. When he gets back a couple of days early, he visits her family home in Connecticut, only to discover that she plans to marry somebody else—and soon.

That big house in Connecticut is full of family and friends, most of whom have secrets and hidden agendas. Domestic drama and valuable inheritances lurk behind the scenes. And sure enough, Holland isn’t there long before someone is murdered. That won’t be the last killing, either. Holland has his hands full trying to unravel what’s going on and save the girl he loves.

As I was reading this novel, with its big country house full of secrets and suspects, it struck me that THE FRIGHTENED FIANCÉE is very similar to an English country house mystery, but because there’s some tough talk and a few punches are thrown, it qualifies as a medium-boiled yarn, too. The setting, the tone, and the very complicated plot made me realize this novel is sort of like Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner collaborated on a book. Feeling as I do about Christie and Gardner, it’s no surprise that I enjoyed THE FRIGHTENED FIANCÉE quite a bit. Coxe keeps things moving along at a pretty good pace. I’m not a huge fan of the way he tends to summarize conversations rather than giving us the actual dialogue, but that’s just his style and it’s not too distracting.

The current e-book edition calls this a Sam Crombie mystery. Crombie is the owner of a private detective agency who gets involved in the story, and while he’s a very good supporting character, in no way is he the star of this book. John Holland is the protagonist and solves the mystery. He’s a little on the bland side but still likable.

The Flash Casey stories and novels are my favorites of Coxe’s work, and I liked all the Kent Murdock novels I’ve read, too. But his stand-alones are good as well and always worth reading, so if you’re a fan of traditional, semi-hardboiled mysteries, you’ll probably enjoy THE FRIGHTENED FIANCÉE like I did.


Glen Davis said...

Coxe is underrated and almost forgotten now.

Bruce Harris said...

I agree with Glen Davis. Coxe was also a MWA Grand Master in 1964.

Jeff Meyerson said...

Several Flash Casey books are available on Kindle for $1.99 each.