Demonstrates a degree of mastery of plot, character, and structure as the mystery is solved with all twists and turns readers have come to expect from the genre.
Known very obscurely as penning the scripts for some Hollywood noirs, and vaguely for some of his hardboiled fiction, author Jonathan Latimer is the creator of booze-soaked, tough-guy -with brains character of Private Investigator Bill Crane and his partner, tough-guy Detective Doc Williams. Interestingly enough, Latimer’s writing is as tough as Mickey Spillane and, at times, can be as literary as Raymond Chandler. Yet, very little is known of his work. There is a complete absence of his presence critically and otherwise. His work, particularly his hardboiled mysteries deserve to be reexamined…and thanks to the Otto Penzler and the Mysterious Press’s rediscovery of this artifact of crime genre, hopefully he will.
My first encounter with Latimer’s work was Headed for a Hearse (1935). This novel was the first of Latimer’s to be made into a film in 1937 as The Westland Case. Although the first novel that he wrote featuring Bill Crane, also published in 1935, became a bestseller. It was titled Murder in the Madhouse.
Latimer is most well-known for his screenplay of the novel The Big Clock (1948) by masterful and influential, (though also very little known) noir novelist and poet Kenneth Fearing, with John Farrow as director. It starred Ray Milland and the incomparable Charles Laughton demonstrating immense presence. The film was loosely remade into a Cold War political intrigue film with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman, and at the time, popular and up-and-coming actress, Sean Young, in 1987’s hit No Way Out, directed by Roger Donaldson.
Latimer’s source material for The Big Clock was rich, as the author Kenneth Fearing was not only a ground breaking crime fiction author, but a ground breaking poet. Fearing combined noir-ish elements in with traditional poetic schematics and came up with rough-and-tumble poems like 1947’s “The Face in the Bar Room Mirror,” which is a rough-hewn gem of gritty realism that is quite striking and worthy of note.
I was skeptical at first to accept Latimer’s work, as I considered him to be a very minor and obviously non-canonical crime fiction author, but when I read the first chapter, I was convinced I was in the hands of a skilled practitioner of this genre. Perhaps, never prolific enough to be a master, Latimer’s work was written for The Crime Club publishing venue that started in 1935, which eventually turned crime -” quickies” into films. Still there is something to be said of break-neck pace, and the elaborate plot structure fitting neatly together, still indicates a degree of skill-full literary ingenuity.
The novel begins with a scene in prison, where a nihilistic convict, a pathetic soul desperately facing his doom, and a mild-mannered businessperson accused of murder, interact through a series of raw dialogue. Westland, the businessperson, is the protagonist whose fate lies in the hands of Bill Crane, who is out to prove that Westland innocent of the murder of his wife. Westland faces the penalty of death in a six days. Therefore, time is short and deadline is fixed which adds to the stories intensity something akin to the story, D.O.A, as the characters race to beat the clock.
The jailhouse scene with Connors, the hardened convict, is as brutal as anything that you are likely to encounter in verisimilitude of a modern -day prison drama. Connors is harsh, and uses language that expresses explicit hatred. Yet, Connor’s misanthropy is so vitriolic that the epithets are used further to enhance the characters’ toxicity.
The novel’s trajectory begins to change as Westland and his partners in business as well as his friends, and finally, Bill Crane, the ring leader of the investigation begins to play out like a whodunit. Westland begins to speculate on enemies and greedy partners, which contain elements of a semi-Agatha Chrisite story beginning to emerge. The combination of hardboiled street prose, a “locked-room” mystery, and the ever-present screwball comedy element make this novel and unusual find. It is here that we fine a unique intersection of genres.
A novel that deserves reevaluation, though it does buckle under the weight of too much genre mixing and too little space. It is an enjoyable read, and serviceable enough.
There is a great scene early in the novel in a restaurant where Bill Crane and his associate, the thuggish and intimidating Detective Doc Williiams, are in a hot night club restaurant investigate a possible informant and witness of the crime- a rogue named Mannie Grant. The scene is a mixture of old school James Cagney film and a Scorsese mafia film as Mannie Grant is shot to shreds with machine gun fire in what appears to be a gang-land mafia hit. In the first restaurant shooting, Bill Crane uses Brentino’s beauty and sex appeal to draw out Manny Grant. It works, but not for long as the gangsters open fire in the restaurant. The scene is pure adrenaline and sets the stage for a wild ride throughout the novel. Comparisons have been made to Nick and Nora in the The Thin Man, and in that way, the unusual blend of components may seem uneven. Perhaps, at times, Latimer spreads the story too thin with the culmination of all the genres.
It is important to note that Latimer began his career as a writer at the Chicago Herald Examiner and later wrote for the Chicago Tribune. He later worked as a police reporter. Latimer covered strong ties in the gangster world through the early 1930s, and met notorious crime figures including Al Capone and Bugs Moran. So therefore, Latimer was quite informed about the activities conducted by members of the underworld and wrote about dangerous gangsters during prohibition in their own territories in Chicago, which could have proven to be quite perilous.
As I continued to progress through the novel, it had occurred to me that Headed’s old tropes, clichés, racist stereotypes and misogyny became more pervasive. However, if one looks at Headed for a Hearse as fulfilling all the staples of the genre, one will find that many hardboiled novels and especially pulp fiction were also full of these unfortunate elements. Once one gets past the archaic thinking, and the marginalization of ethnicities and genre stereotypes, the novel is interesting. This needs all to be taken in context in some of the unfortunate aspects of the zeitgeist of the time, namely Depression-era America.
The interesting thing about Latimer’s work is its hardboiled dialogue, traditional mystery elements, and gangster-style invocations. As aforementioned, Latimer incorporates the tropes of the “screw-ball comedy” revolving around comedy of errors and competition between two sexes. The women in the novel are often portrayed as high-maintenance, frivolous, and whimsical, particularly the quintessential screw-ball comedy/film noir dame, Margot Brentino, Westland’s secretary. The “screw-ball” angle was least palatable in this novel, and was one aspect that works towards this novel’s obsolescence.
Overall, the novel demonstrates a degree of mastery of plot, character, and structure as the mystery is solved with all twists and turns readers have come to expect from the genre, and a happy resolution which saves Westland a few hours before his doom. However, its tone and style are uneven, and although, Latimer’s work is that of a skilled artisan of the genre and deserves reevaluation, the novel does buckle under the weight of too much genre mixing, and too little space. It is an enjoyable read, and serviceable enough. Latimer earned his stripes in the crime fiction genre, and he should be read.
Jonathan Latimer Miscellaneous Scripts and Screenplays, MSS 133. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.
William Blick is Assistant Professor/Library at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York. His work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Pulp Metal Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, and other publications.