J is for … Jonathan Latimer

Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog continues this week and has reached the letter J. As part of my contribution, I offer a look at the work of Jonathan Latimer, one of the best Golden Age authors of the hardboiled school you’ve probably never heard of …

Born in Chicago on 23 October 1906, Jonathan Wyatt Latimer first worked as a journalist on the crime beat before making his literary mark in the 1930s with a series of tough screwball mysteries feature the eternally sozzled private eye Bill Crane. After the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he served in the Navy, he largely abandoned prose for a long and successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter that stretched from adaptations of Hammett and Woolrich to original scripts for such successful television shows as Perry Mason and Columbo. He died in La Jolla, California (where he had been friends with Raymond Chandler in the 40s and 50s) on 23 June 1983, outliving virtually all of his hardboiled contemporaries. But let’s go back to the beginning of his career …

“… wacky, booze soaked romps with a tough hide and a core of solid detection” – William L. DeAndrea

In total Latimer wrote nine mysteries as well as a ‘straight’ novel, Dark Memory originally published in 1940 and now rather hard to get hold of (sadly I do not own a copy). I do however have the rest on my shelves I am glad to say. Latimer’s main character in the 1930s (and his only series character in fact) is William ‘Bill’ Crane, who first appears as an inmate in a mental asylum in Murder in the Madhouse in 1935. He is a private eye, with his partner Doc Williams, who

spends pretty much all of his cases either inebriated or hung over but who also solves his cases through proper deductive reasoning as well as some barely ethical escapades. This is seen perhaps at its best in The Lady in the Morgue (1936), though the first four cases are all highly entertaining and highly unusual in their combination of hardboiled characters and fair play detection, as likely to include a fist fight as a locked room mystery. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries are the only ones to really match this aspect of his work, which in its screwball aspects looks forward to the work of Craig Rice, Fredric Brown, Richard Prather and, in its mixture of hardboiled characters and classical soft-boiled plots, Bill Pronzini.

“… his writing is notable for its corrosive humour, off-the-wall perspective, bizarre settings and protagonists who solve classical crime puzzles through a woozy but instinctive grasp of the deductive process” – Woody Haut in ‘Heartbreak and Vine’

In the fifth and final Crane case, Red Gardenias (1939), Latimer repaid the debt to Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) by taming or anyway domesticating the wild PI and marrying him off too. Crane works for a New York agency run by the mysterious Colonel Black, who incidentally appears as a kind of Sherlock Holmes figure in The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head (1937), an old-fashioned country-house mystery published by Latimer under the pseudonym ‘Peter Coffin’. On the other hand, Latimer also created a novel so tough that it took decades to be published uncensored with Solomon’s Vineyard (1941).

” … one of the most memorable and original detective series in modern detective fiction … the very best of the screwball comedy school of mystery fiction” – Art Scott

Crane was played in the cinema by Preston Foster in three B-movies made by Universal: The Westland Case (1937), adapted from Headed for a Hearse, followed in speedy succession by The Lady in the Morgue and finally The Last Warning (both 1938), from The Dead Don’t Care, with Frank Jenks cast as Doc Williams in all three.

Latimer’s output was perhaps a little limited in terms of quantity (though on par with Chandler and Hammett in terms of novels, though he produced no short stories that I know of), though he was much moire successful as a screenwriter than either of them in terms of productivity. His career as a novelist was interrupted initially by his wartime service in the Marines and then by his work in Hollywood. His work before the outbreak of war though remains well worth seeking out however:

  1. Murder in the Madhouse (1935)
  2. Headed for a Hearse (1935) [reprinted as The Westland Case]
  3. The Lady in the Morgue (1936)
  4. The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head (1937) (as by ‘Peter Coffin’)
  5. The Dead Don’t Care (1938)
  6. Red Gardenias (1939) [reprinted as Some Dames Are Deadly
  7. Solomon’s Vineyard (1941) [reprinted in censored version as The Fifth Grave]
  8. Sinners and Shrouds (1955)
  9. Black Is the Fashion for Dying (1959) [UK title: The Mink-lined Coffin]

These are some of the most alcohol-soaked books in the genre … Despite its hardboiled flavour, the series did not stint on detection; Latimer inserted clues and followed up the deductive process as assiduously as a writer of classic mysteries. – Bruce F. Murphy

After the Second World War Latimer focused almost exclusively on his work as a screenwriter, first for cinema and later for television. As well as several fine examples of Film Noir – such as the fatalistic They Won’t Believe Me (1947), and an unmade adaptation of Hammett’s Red Harvest – Latimer worked in a variety of genres including comedies, westerns, war movies, historical dramas amongst a wide range of titles. Along with the charming Topper Returns (1941), which turned the supernatural comedy series into a murder mystery starring the delectable Joan Blondell, one should also single out for praise the fine 1942 version of The Glass Key starring Alan Ladd, Brian Donleavy and Veronica Lake. From the late 1950s, after a couple of belated and decidedly less successful novels, Latimer worked exclusively in television. In total he wrote 32 episode for the original Perry Mason series

starring Raymond Burr (some sources claim one less, probably because IMDb in error have omitted the writing credit for ‘The Case of the Frightened Fisherman’, written by Latimer, and first screened on 27 February 1964). These credits are made of up of seven adaptations (six from Erle Stanley Gardner and one from Hugh Pentecost) but the other twenty-five episodes are original scripts. For a truly exhaustive look at Latimer’s work on Perry Mason, visit the show’s wiki at: www.perrymasontvseries.com/wiki. Latimer was, along with Jackson Gillis, the most prolific writer for the Perry Mason show (aside from its script editor Samuel Newman).

The distinctive mark of Jonathan Latimer is an irresponsible gaiety that marks out his work from the ordinary competent hard-boiled novel. – Julian Symons

He then followed Gillis to work on an episode of Columbo, ‘The Greenhouse Jungle’, which incidentally reunited him with Ray Milland, the star of his earlier John Farrow collaborations The Big Clock, Alias Nick Beal and Copper Canyon, as the guest villain. The best of his screenplays are probably those to be found in his long collaboration with director John Farrow (husband of Maureen O’Sullivan and father of Mia Farrow):

  1. Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) from the novel by Cornell Woolrich
  2. Beyond Glory (1948)
  3. The Big Clock (1948) from the novel by Kenneth Fearing, later remade as No Way Out (1987)
  4. Alias Nick Beal (1949) – perhaps the best of their films but currently only available illegally online.
  5. Copper Canyon (1950)
  6. Submarine Command (1951)
  7. Plunder of the Sun (1953) from the novel by David Dodge
  8. Botany Bay (1953)
  9. Back from Eternity (1956)
  10. The Unholy Wife (1957)

For further information on Latimer’s fine body of work, check out three especially good resources:

This entry was posted in 'In praise of ...', 2012 Alphabet of Crime, Columbo, Cornell Woolrich, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Film Noir, Jonathan Latimer, Los Angeles, Perry Mason, Private Eye, Raymond Chandler, Scene of the crime, Screwball, The Thin Man. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to J is for … Jonathan Latimer

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Oh, this is an interesting post. I’ve only just heard of Latimer’s name; I’ve never read any of his work. So interesting that the hardboiled sub-genre started a whole lot earlier than a lot of people may think it did…

    • Thank you Margot – along with Rex Stout, his efforts in combining the hard and soft ‘schools’ strike me as among the most successful in the 1930s heyday.

  2. TracyK says:

    I was looking at this yesterday and still digesting all of it today. Very interesting information about an author I had heard of but know little about. Even more interesting because of the references to movies and TV that he wrote screenplays for. Do you think he moved to screenplays exclusively because it paid better or just more interesting to him?

    The comparisons to Rex Stout and Bill Pronzini are intriguing because they are favorite authors of mine… although I haven’t read Pronzini in a while. Read about 20 novels in the Nameless series and still have the remainder to read. My husband is a big fan of Pronzini and buys all of that series.

    And of course I love the covers. Will have to look for some vintage paperbacks by him, when I can afford to do so.

    • Thanks TracyK, really glad you enjoyed the post. So many of the harboiled writers of the 30s went into movies after their own novels were filmed – like Hammett, Chandler, James L. Cain, WR Burnett, Steve Fisher – that I think it seemed like a natural extension of the work – and it had to pay better than the pulps, let’s face it! Pronzini is a bit of a wonder really, especially considering how prlific he is and still hard at work. A real treasure.

  3. scott says:

    Very interesting, I will have to pay more attention when Perry Mason is on.

    • Thanks Scott – it doesn’t get shown on the channels I get here in the UK anymore so I have to make do with the DVDs, which are generally very handsomely put together I’m glad to say!¬

  4. John says:

    Latimer is a fantastic mystery plotter and entertaining story teller. The Bill Crane books are some of the best in early American detective fiction. Someone needs to reissue every one of them!

    So glad you mentioned Latimer’s work on the Mason TV show. In my opinion his epsiodes are must-sees. He did excellent distillation of the intricate plots of the novels he adapted for the series, but his original scripts are even better. They have superb mystery plots, some border on genuis. He far outshines the other writers who tended to focus on boring crooked businessman and politicians and tired lover’s triangle stories. An original Latimer script always found an intriguiging human element and always had clever clues. The spin on the “Tichborne Claimant” plot motif Latimer wrote called The Case of the Nebulous Nephew starring 60s hunk Ron Starr as the nephew and Beulah Bondi as one of the aunts is a perfect example of Latimer’s ingenuity in plotting. It has a rather daring twist towards the end.

    • Thanks very much John, greatly appreciate the feedback. I first became aware of Latimer through his screenwork and then moved on to the novels (which, for me, is so often the way). Latimer definitely gave the show a real shot in the arm when its conventions were already starting to be decidedly repetitive – glad you think so to mate!

  5. John says:

    P.S. I rarely do this but I’m going to plug my own blog if I may. (you can always delete this if you like) I reviewed The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head here It’s an odd book. Very different from Latimer’s Bill Crane novels.

    • Very glad to have the plug because I hadn’t read that review – thanks very much John, you know so much more about this era than I do, it’s always a real education.


  6. Anne H says:

    For some reason I’ve been seeing books by Jonathan Latimer around for years but have only recently read any at last. (It must have been the hard-boiled type covers!) Now I must get more of these as I picked up Solomon’s Vineyard recently at a book sale- not the expurgated version, naturally – and enjoyed it. As if my TBR piles, plural, are not high enough, and one also contains Black is the Fashion for Dying.

    • Glad to think I might have inspired you to seek out more Latimer, thanks! The first four Bill Crane cases, especially Headed for a Hearse and Lady in the Morgue, are really worth tracking down. Happy hunting.

  7. Hopefully, wonderful reviews like this one might encourage some small presses to reprint Latimer’s work. SOLOMON’S VINEYARD is his masterpiece, but his other novels are well worth reading, too!

  8. Sergio, this is an interesting and informative post on Latimer and his hardboiled fiction. I hadn’t heard of this writer before or the fact that he wrote 32 episodes for the Perry Mason series or screenplays for a variety of films. Latimer seems to have dabbled in many things, quite successfully, and kept himself busy through most of his life. I’ll be looking out for his novels. And I look forward to reading your review of “Solomon’s Vineyard.” There’s always a mystery about a hard-to-publish book, especially if it went through censors and took decades to publish.

    • Thanks you Prashant, very kind. Obviously the one-time salacious content is only able to raise an eyebrow today, though seen in contect of its times it is a fascinating variant on The Maltese Falcom – hope you enjoy the review (and the book eventually of course).

  9. Tom says:

    Sergio, first of all I’d like to say that I’ve been following your blog for a while and love it! You have introduced me to some create books I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of.
    I’ve been reading Latimer’s books for a while but I keep on stopping myself from reading them because there so good that I want to save them. I too have all his books except for Dark Memory but it is easy enough to get hold of a copy if you are willing to spend over £10 (which being a poor student I am currently not), there are quite a few copies on abebooks: http://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/SearchResults?an=Jonathan+Latimer&bt.x=49&bt.y=17&sts=t&tn=Dark+Memory

  10. Pingback: BLACKMAILER (1952) by George Axelrod | Tipping My Fedora

  11. Pingback: THE BIG CLOCK (1946) by Kenneth Fearing | Tipping My Fedora

  12. Pingback: #216: The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head (1937) by Jonathan Latimer | The Invisible Event

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