George Harmon Coxe was once a major name in the mystery genre. Coxe got his start in the pulps, writing hardboiled crime fiction for the likes of Black Mask. He then wrote over 60 mystery novels between 1937 and 1975, filling entire library shelves, wire book racks, and Book Club selections. Well, that overstates his popularity, but once upon a time Coxe was a well-known name to mystery readers. Today, his name is almost unknown; his books remain mostly out of print, except Mysteriouspress/Open Road Media’s recent-ish e-release of twenty Coxe novels. Man on a Rope comes from the middle of his career, and I have to say I was lured in by the Schaare cover art and diamond-based plot.
Barry Dawson’s expertise was in diamonds, something British Guiana had in limited (but prosperous) supply. The deal was an under-the-table one between local magnate Colin Lambert, who supplied the diamonds, and American gangster Arthur Hudson would provide the money to buy them with. Despite Dawson’s history with Lambert—Barry had been swindled by Lambert during a diamond prospecting expedition—he was the ideal person to estimate their worth: $99,400 in raw diamonds, with another thousand in industrial diamonds as change, the exchange to go through be the next day. Soon enough for Barry, who wants to collect his fee and head back to the States after his unproductive time in the colony, to set up a life for his British fiancée.
But when Dawson receives a summons to Lambert’s villa and finds the man murdered, things begin to go sour. It’s not that there aren’t any suspects: Lambert’s woman; the diamond-ferrying pilot she’s having an affair with; Lambert’s attorney who’s robbed of the dead man’s will in the night; Barry’s girlfriend Lynn, secretary to the attorney; Hudson the (suspected) criminal; to say nothing of the mysterious man Dawson bumped into just outside of Lambert’s house during a rainstorm. But when Barry Dawson finds the diamonds hidden in his room moments before the police arrive to search the very spot they were stashed, he realizes he was nearly framed for a crime he did not commit. And if he doesn’t find the real murderer, and fast, he’ll become the prime suspect of the eager Colonial police.
Coxe’s writing for the most part is adequate. It has a distinctly British quality to it, circa the Golden Age Mystery era: formal, dry, verbose, and plodding forth at a methodical speed. Coxe makes decent use of his tropical locale, though it never leaves the backdrop; instead, he will launch into exposition on occasion. Often this relays how some character’s background or family history was shaped by living in British Guinea, which can be a bit awkward when it’s done in the form of expository dialogue. Maybe I’m too used to hardboiled thrillers, as Man on a Rope was a slow read. It’s got several intense scenes—one in particular is early in the novel when Dawson’s British girlfriend Lynn stumbles into a burglar, another is the predictable but tense final showdown—but for most of the novel, the pacing is ponderous.
However, Coxe handles the mystery elements well: the diverse cast of characters all have a reason to kill Lambert, but most have a stronger reason to keep him alive. A cast of red herrings and n’er-do-wells makes it tricky to pinpoint the murderer, especially when Barry is targeted as the fall-guy. The characters are easy to distinguish, having unique dialogue characteristics, and their complex back-stories begin to come to light during Dawson’s investigating. Dawson himself is likeable; he’s a bit out of his element, and very short on time (he’s planning to leave for the States in less than five days, and must wrap the murder up before then). His actions remain realistic and believable throughout the novel. The same goes for his girlfriend Lynn, who is strong and resolute even while in danger. Actually, the characters are the thing I enjoyed most.
Man on a Rope is a stolid, enjoyable novel, though I have to wonder how much effort Coxe put into it. The pacing sags under a slow pace, the occasional exposition dumps are tedious, and the prose can be stilted. It fails to capture the spirit of its exotic setting, which is an unforgivable sin. But a decent mystery, and the cast of realistic characters salvages the novel. It’s an entertaining potboiler, and I can see why George Harmon Coxe was a master of the genre some fifty years ago—the mystery is handled with skill, and having so many potential suspects made it hard to pick the culprit. On the other hand, this novel’s flaws explain why it was forgotten; I think it has some value for readers—especially those who enjoy the Mike Shayne school of mystery—provided they can overcome its failings.