"Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me."- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1903).
There was a gap in between starting and finishing George Harmon Coxe's The Camera Clue (1937), which is why the details from the first half have fuzzed a bit, but that's a minor obstacle for a hack reviewer like yours truly.
The Camera Clue is the third in a row of twenty-two novels starring Kent Murdock, "the best news cameraman in Boston," who made his first appearance in Murder With Pictures (1935) and in substance a cleaned-up, more likable incarnation of the Black Mask version of "Flashgun" Casey – a crime photographer debuting in 1934.
Interestingly, there are some similarities between the problems faced by Murdock in The Camera Clue and Casey in Murder for Two (1943), which I recently reviewed here. The victims in both stories are (gossip) columnists, but here the successful writer has a lucrative side business in blackmail, while the murdered journalist from Murder for Two was crusading against those kinds of abuses. It's basically a reverse take on the plot of the story I have just read. However, there are far more differences than similarities, which makes it stand on its own and Coxe answered a great question with this book: what if Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" had been written as a proper detective story...
"Planning one," is what Murdock asked Nora Pendleton when she inquired, "what constitutes a justifiable homicide," but her answer is surprising, "I just finished one," and the victim is Jerry Carter – the well-known columnist and blackmailer. Carter has a few indiscrete letters, which could threaten her current engagement with Roger Spalding and a confrontation over them ended with Nora shooting Carter. Twice! Carter crumpled in front of her, but Murdock finds it hard to believe and goes a-snooping. Murdock has his first pick at Carter's private office (the scene of the crime), snaps a few pictures and that's when the trouble begins. There are some familiar faces in a photograph taken of the street, in front of the block of offices, a third bullet fired may exonerate Nora and Murdock's meddling attracts some unwanted attention. All in a days work for a pulp-journalist from the 1930s.
|Crime Map on the Back Cover|
My impression, after merely two books, is that the photographic evidence in Coxe's novels function mainly as a safety deposit box for clues rather than for scientific analysis. You can take something away from the crime-scene, but erasing them from a photograph is a lot harder to accomplish – especially back then. You have to destroy them. In the mean time, that's as good as an excuse as any to sick some shady figures on whomever possesses the photographic plates and ground the stories in the hardboiled tradition of the pulp magazines. So not exactly a branch-off of the scientific-and realist school of detective fiction.
The ending is actually quite good, in which Murdock devices a Wolfean scheme in order to trap a multiple-murderer and even pulls a frame on another suspect to ensure cooperation, however, the best part was the least-likely-suspect card that was drawn – which probably would've worked better had I read one of the previous books in the series. All in all, a fun, fast-paced mystery of the pulpy, semi-hardboiled kind.