Kent Murdock, ace crime photographer for the Boston Courier, is the protagonist of George Harmon Coxe’s longest-running mystery series. Actually, he doesn’t stay a crime photographer throughout the series. By the time THE FIFTH KEY takes place (1945), Murdock is the head of the Courier’s photography department, but he still takes on some assignments himself, like the one in this novel that takes him to New York City to shoot some publicity photos for a radio drama called Sob Sister. The series’ creator (the beautiful Sheila Vincent) and its director Owen Faulkner are both former newspaper people who Murdock knew when they worked for the Courier.
The series is on the verge of getting a big deal with a sponsor, which means
that agents and advertising men are also involved, as are a washed-up Hollywood
leading man who plays one of the major roles on the show and an up-and-coming
actress who plays the lead. It’s a group of brittle personalities who drink a
bunch and verbally snipe at each other, and no one who’s ever read many mystery
novels will be surprised that one of them winds up dead fairly early in the
book. However, some unfortunate circumstances make Murdock the one most likely
to take the fall for the killing, unless he can untangle all the strands of
hate and avarice and turn up the real murderer.
George Harmon Coxe was an old pulpster who really knew how to keep a yarn racing along. Although Kent Murdock isn’t as hardboiled as Coxe’s other major series character, Flashgun Casey, he can throw a punch, dodge a bullet, and get knocked out, all of which he does in this book. The plot is complicated, involving false identities, fugitives from the law, the question of who really created and wrote the radio series (an element that always comes up in mysteries that have any sort of creative media background), a shady private eye, blackmail, and more murder and attempted murder. It’s not quite Erle Stanley Gardner-level complicated, but almost. Of course, Coxe makes everything fit together neatly in the end, after a nice suspenseful scene in which Murdock confronts the killer.
I’ve mentioned before that Coxe had one stylistic quirk that bothers me: he sometimes summarizes conversations instead of quoting the actual dialogue between the characters. A little of that is all right, but I think he overdoes it. And it’s not because he can’t write dialogue, because his snappy patter is great. It’s not enough to keep me from reading his books because the hardboiled tone, the plots, and the characters are all top-notch. But if you haven’t read his work before, it can be a little jarring.
You should also know that Coxe doesn’t always play fair with the reader. Murdock will read an important document or notice an important clue, but Coxe sometimes doesn’t let us in on what Murdock finds out until later. If you know that going in and it doesn’t bother you, that’s fine. I’m okay with it, but that, along with the way he handles dialogue, keep him from being one of my all-time favorites. I still read his books, though, because their strong qualities outweigh the minor annoyances.
When I was a kid, every public library had a couple of dozen George Harmon Coxe books in their mystery section, and deservedly so. He was a major writer in the hardboiled mystery field for a long time, and don’t let my quibbling scare you off from his books, many of which are still available as e-books, like THE FIFTH KEY. There’s a paperback edition available from Wildside Press, as well. I had a good time reading this one, and if you’re reading this blog, you’d probably enjoy it, too.