Death at the Isthmus by George Hrmon Coxe (1954)
Jim Russell, a lawyer who had been gravely wounded in the Phillipines durng the war, receives a request from Max Darrow, the man who had saved his life back in 1945: a letter, with enclosed airplane tickets.
I can use that favor you think you owe me. If you can't make it as scheduled, cable and change reservation to suit yourself. The sooner the better.
Although Jim had never been close to Max -- Max had always been too much of a wheeler-dealer who was apt to skirt legal niceties -- Jim had been burdened for nine years with the thought that he was in the other man's debt. So off he went to Panama City, hoping to erase that obligation.
What Max Darrow asked of him was simple enough. Max had a son, a six-year-old boy he had never seen. Things were getting too hot in Panama for Max and there had been threats (and attempts) on his life. Max handed Jim an envelope with $8000 in it, and two small packages, one with a cheap, souvenir imitation tortoise-shell cigarette case and the other with a gold St. Christopher medallion on a chain. The boxes were to go to Shorty Maloff, a friend of Max's, who would get the medallion to Max's son; the cigarette case was for Shorty, just the sort of cheap gimcrack he would appreciate. The cash would be used for the boy's education, something that Jim, as a lawyer, could handle. A simple request and one that Jim could handle easily.
But it turns out that Max did not have a son. This was just a ruse use Jim to get the packages through customs without raising suspicioin. Inside the cigarette case was a fortune in emeralds. The gems were legally Max's, but by using Jim, Max could avoid a very heavy customs fee. And Max was right about being afraid for his life. Within a day, Max was dead on his apartment floor, shot.
The suspects included Max's partner in a small air freight company, a night club singer who had been Max's one-time mistress, Max's current mistress, a retired army major who happened to be married to the current mistress, a beautiful young girl attempting to retrieve $10,000 owed to her father from a shipping company that Max owned, a restaurant maitre de who had been Max's silent partner, some Texas gunrunners who had been stiffed by Max and one of his partners, and a group of insurrectionists who wanted the missing weapons. Assigned to solve the murder as Inspector General Hector Quesada of the Panamanian Secret Police, a calm, thoughtful man who was not above kidnapping people from the Canal Zone to bring them into the country proper where he had authority.
In the center of all this was Jim Russell, the man who found the body -- and later, another body -- and who was not allowed to return to the United States until the murder was solved. And there was the young girl in danger whom Jim had fallen in love with.
A fast pace, sharp characterizations, and a vivid locale add up to a pleasant evening's read.
George Harmon Coxe (1901-1984) had been called "the professional's porfessional" by Anthony Boucher. Best known for his stories about newspaper photographer Flashgun Casey, as well as his books about Kent Murdock, another newspaper photographer, Coxe was name an MWA Grandmaster in 1964. He published well over 60 novels from 1935 to 1975, had a solid career in the pulps, and worked in both film and television. His character Flashgun Casey took to the radio airwaves from 1943 to 1950, and the again from 1954 to 1955; Darrin McGavin played Casey on television during its 1951-1952 run; Casey even made a brief appearance in comic books for four issues in 1949-1950 .
Casey appeared in five novels and pne stpry collection by Coxe, as well as in one pseudonomynous novel by Edward S, aarons. Murdock appeared in 23 novels. Other series characters by Coxe included Jack Fenner ( a newspaper colleague of Murdock), who appeared in three novels with Murdock as well as in one solo novel, Sam Crombie, Maxfield Chauncey Hale, and medical examiner Paul Standish.
About one half of Coxe's novels were stand-alones, with the majority of them taking place in the Caribbean. Cox had a freer rein with these sstandalones and was able to draw tighter characters without the fear of radically changing a series character.
Detective work seldom figured into Coxe's mysteries, relying far more on suspense and plot. None of his novels could ever reach the classic status as those of a Christie, Sayers, Carr, or Queen, but as with his fellow contemporary Graand Masters Hugh Pentecost, Baynard Kendrick, and Aaron Marc Stein, George Harmon Coxe always provided solid entertainment.