The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog is nearing its end as it reaches the letter V – and my second nomination this week, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is …
SOLOMON’S VINEYARD (1941) by Jonathan Latimer
“I fought in the war,” Jonesy said; “but it wasn’t like this.”
This is a book that comes with a lot of baggage after gaining notoriety as a mystery that was so hardboiled that it wasn’t published uncut in the US for some forty years – does it, could it, really live up to that promise? Is this the book that is to the crime and mystery genre what DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was to ‘serious’ literature – an emancipating, liberating turning point in the genre? Well, no, not all. It’s still a damn good book though. Here’s some reasons why.
In the 1930s Jonathan Latimer made a name for himself with a series of five novels featuring boozy private eye Bill Crane which caught many a reader and critic’s attention for their expert combination of insouciance and screwball comedy with genuine mysteries. These were popular enough to spark off a brief series of three B-movie adaptations by Universal Studios starring Preston Foster as Crane: The Westland Case (1937), Lady in the Morgue (1938, aka The Case of the Missing Blonde) and The Last Warning (1939). Before long Latimer, a Chicago native, would move to LA and largely give up novels for a long career as a Hollywood screenwriter, adapting Hammett and Woolrich for the big screen as well as dreaming up original stories for such TV perennials as the Perry Mason series starring Raymond Burr in the 1950s and 60s (32 episodes in total by my reckoning though many sources claim only 31) and Columbo in the 1970s.
All 10 of his novels are marked by a tough protagonists with a devil-may-care attitude to life, sex, alcohol and their detective work – however, Solomon’s Vineyard is unquestionably the most extreme example of this approach. It begins as it means to go on with a fairly tongue-in-cheek disclaimer from protagonist Karl Craven, a St Louis private investigator who is a little overweight, played college football and at one point was a strike breaker – he tells us:
“It’s got everything but an abortion and a tornado. I ain’t saying it’s true … You can lug it across to the rental library right now and tell the dame you want your goddam nickel back. We don’t care.”
Set in 1940 in the small town of Paulton, it immediately sets out to be a provocative read as Karl, in the first person throughout, graphically describes how corrupt and despoiled this apparently sleepy and unimportant little town actually is – this follows what has become, in its own small way, a classic attention-grabbing opening which, if deliberately coarse, devotes several paragraphs to describing the ample charms (OK, curves) of an attractive blonde bombshell the aptly named ‘Craven’ has just run into at the train station. This is amusing if basically pretty tame by today’s standards but it still serves its main purpose well – to make us realise that this aims to be an earthy hardboiled thriller much tougher and explicit than what we have largely been accustomed to (barring the works of Paul and James L. Cain perhaps). Latimer certainly seemed to think that to cause a stir he would have to try harder than the mere mention of the word ‘erection’ which, when used in a sexual if comical aside by Nora Charles to her husband Nick in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man could cause a minor scandal for the Knopf publishing house. In fact he may have done his job too well. As mild as the book is by today’s standards, it originally only appeared uncut in the UK and didn’t get published in the US until the 1950s, and then only in a sanitised version re-titled The Fifth Grave. The full version in fact only appeared there just before the author’s death in 1983.
Alert readers of the book’s initial chapters, if not too distracted by the description of the legs, skin and torso of the woman we learn is only known as the ‘Princess’, will see that they are written very much in the style of Hammett’s Continental Op stories - ‘Craven’, a pseudonym and so effectively nameless and somewhat pudgy and thus superficially is certainly in the same mould as the Op. In terms of plot, as the protagonist battles gangsters and a femme fatale, setting up one competing gang of mobsters against the other while doggedly trying to solve the case of his partner’s murder (shot while using the toilet in another saucy touch), it is easy to discern the direct influence of Hammett’s work. Expressly his seminal gangster novel Red Harvest (the description of Paulton is almost beat for beat a rephrase of the opening introduction to ‘Personville’ in that novel) and his private eye masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon, where Spade investigates the murder of his associate Archer. Indeed it appears that around this time Latimer had in fact been engaged in writing a (ultimately unmade) screenplay adaptation of Red Harvest. What distinguishes it, apart from its comparative frankness and depiction of kinky sexual practices, is its genuine toughness and its intriguing titular religious community.
Craven learns that the ‘Princess’ is in charge of ‘Solomon’s Vineyard’, a religious retreat up on the hill which it soon becomes clear is up to no good. As in Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine, which I reviewed a couple of months ago, a young woman from a wealthy family has seemingly fallen in the sway of a crackpot organisation using religion to steal money from its unsuspecting congregation and ‘Craven and his late partner Oke Johnson were hired to retrieve her. ‘Solomon’, who used to head the community, died some five years earlier and now the Vineyard is run by the mysterious, deadly and alluring ‘Princess’ who remain a bit of an enigma though we do get a lot of outrageous other information about her – most notably that she is a sado-masochist who needs to be beaten before she can experience sexual pleasure.
“You you don’t like God?”
“I can take him or leave him.”
In addition there is a suggestion that Oke’s murderer, seen stalking the town at night in a cowl, may be sacrificing virgins to assuage a truly perverse sexual hangup, though this is stated fairly indirectly. There is much violent action, mostly in Craven’s encounter with the insanely jealous Vineyard thug, ex-boxer Pug Banta, whom he regularly provokes by taking out his girl Ginger. All this while Craven is nightly shacking up with the ‘Princess’, who when not entreating him to beat her as a prelude to sex uses Pug’s presence as blackmail to help in her own nefarious schemes to rob the Vineyard. Their sexual encounters (which, to be fair, fade to black after the clinch) lead to much consumption of alcohol and enormous quantities of protein as she invariably leaves him exhausted after their violent nights together. As part of Latimer’s provocative agenda, Craven also makes several highly questionable statements about women (“they were all alike with your eyes closed”), nationalities (“Greeks never liked fighting”) and race (“A negro takes a lot of killing”) but clearly none of it is meant to be taken seriously and is fairly nakedly parodic. Lest the plot should seem like too routine a thriller about a small town with something wrong, along with some nice twists there are also several well sketched subsidiary characters, the religious charlatans are as well characterised as the ill-informed true believers and, to cap it all, Latimer neatly brings his plot together by solving it with a fairly clued variation on the Christie least-likely murderer gambit.
I highly recommend this zesty, overtly excessive novel, a slightly naughty murder mystery which offers a neat whodunit, a well-concealed pair of villains, some transparent but effective borrowings from Hammett, a really tough protagonist who definitely looks forward to the much less agreeable Mike Hammer, a spooky Gothic atmosphere for the climax at the Vineyard when it appears that human sacrifice really is on the menu, and some eminently quotable dialogue too.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about Latimer and his novels should immediately go and read John Fraser’s excellent article over at Mystery File, available at: www.mysteryfile.com/Latimer