"And there's no doubt he has fifteen or twenty pasts; I know that much about him."- Archie Goodwin ("Cordially Invited to Meet Death," collected in Black Orchids, 1941)
Last month, Curt Evans posted a notice on The Passing Tramp, "Stout Reads: See What Rex Read and How He Rated It," informing us there were books for sale once owned by Rex Stout and some were rated. The highest ranking mystery novel from the lot was George Harmon Coxe's Murder for Two (1943), which was awarded with an A-minus by Stout and that was enough to pique my interest.
Jack "Flashgun" Casey is a journalist/photographer of the hardboiled kind and began his career in a series of short stories, published in Black Mask, followed by a handful of novels, radio plays, movies, a TV-series and even a short lived comic book incarnation – on which Stan Lee was an editor.
Murder for Two begins with Casey returning to the office building of the Express, after being rejected by the Army on account of a bum knee, when the managing editor has a surprise for him: he has take Karen Harding, whose father is a major stockholder in the newspaper, along on assignments to show her the fieldwork of reporting. And their first stop is Rosalind Taylor. Taylor is a nationally syndicated writer of columns crusading "against industrialists who would not co-operate with labor unions, and against the unions themselves when run by unscrupulous leaders" as the "public champion of the under-dog" and has had Matt Lawson in her crosshairs for a while. Lawson is as unscrupulous as they come, but as of late, he has been reinventing himself as a patriot with war contracts and new inventions like Everflow – a new compound that makes oils flow at low temperatures. A young man, John Perry, who was swindled out of his rights by Lawson and, as a bonus, pressed charges against Perry for assault, invented the compound.
As Rosalind Taylor remarks, "he and his kind do more to hurt the war effort than any other single class," but as perfectly cliché as Lawson is for the role of corpse, it's Taylor who's found inside her own car – shot through the back of her head.
Here's where the pace of the story begins to pick-up and, while you keep reading, there were portions of the story that simply went through the motions of a hardboiled detective story. Casey is struggling through out the book with two musclemen, in pursuit of photographic evidence snapped by Karen Harding, and they regularly poke a gun in the photographer's face. Of course, this eventually results in old-fashioned fisticuffs. The policemen in Murder for Two, Lt. Logan and Sgt. Manahan, are of the friendly variety, however, search warrants aren't always a necessary tool of their trade. At one point in the story, Lt. Logan opens a door with a skeleton key and answers Casey's comment on the obvious illegality of the act with a dry "so they tell me." If the story had been written today, I'm sure Logan would've been a suspect on account of a past Taylor column highlighting his unconstitutional police methods.