Friday, September 11, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“Solomon’s Vineyard,” by Jonathan Latimer

(Editor’s note: This is the 62nd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Mike Ripley, noted British critic, Shots columnist, and award-winning author of the Fitzroy Maclean Angel series of comedy thrillers.)

A bit like Fergus Hume’s trail-blazing The Mystery of a Hansom Cab from 1886, Jonathan Latimer’s most notorious novel is cited in all the best reference books and critical works, yet hardly anyone seems to have read it.

Solomon’s Vineyard (aka The Fifth Grave) was, I believe, originally banned in the United States and had to be published in the much more liberal UK in 1941, despite there being a war on. Although a “bowdlerized” version (presumably that means censored) did appear in America some years later, it seems that British fans were responsible for keeping the Latimer flame alive (albeit fluttering weakly) with paperback versions in the early 1960s and then reprints of most of his titles in the late 1980s and 1990s.

It was, and is, a flame worth nourishing for Jonathan Wyatt Latimer (1906-83) was a key player in the field of hard-boiled fiction, film, and television. He made his name with novels featuring New York private eye Bill Crane in the mid-1930s, books which (British) critics rated as well above the average hard-boiled pulp. Julian Symons (in Bloody Murder, published in the States as Mortal Consequences) picked out “an irresponsible gaiety” in Latimer’s work, while Tim Binyon (Murder Will Out) noted “a pleasingly cynical, slightly bawdy tone ... [where the] ... prevailing mood is one of slightly drunken irresponsibility.” H.R.F. “Harry” Keating (Whodunnit) noted wryly that Latimer’s alcoholic detective, Bill Crane, “is unusual (among hard-boiled heroes) in that drink makes him drunk.”

It seemed entirely logical that Latimer would end up in Hollywood, which he swiftly did, racking up scriptwriting credits on The Glass Key in 1942, from the novel by Dashiell Hammett (a bound shooting script of which would now cost you around $3,000), and then The Big Clock, from the book by Kenneth Fearing, as well as many other non-crime movies. In the 1950s Latimer slipped smoothly into television, writing for the shows Checkmate (created by Eric Ambler) and Hong Kong, before putting in a decent shift on Perry Mason (26 episodes) and, finally, writing an early episode of Columbo.

A notable career in anybody’s book, it would seem. Yet Latimer is best known for writing a one-off, non-series, banned novel which could only easily be read by Americans if they were GIs serving in Britain during World War II!

So what makes Solomon’s Vineyard so notorious? By 1940/41, the school of hard-boiled writing was well established, and Raymond Chandler was in the process of buffing it up into high art. Latimer was in there alongside Hammett, James M. Cain, and Horace McCoy, and the tough-talking, hard-drinking, streetwise hoodlums and heroes he portrayed should have surprised no one; though the above-average quality of his prose may have. There is certainly a lot of tough-talking and thuggish violence in Vineyard, and perhaps more than the expected amount of hard drinking.

The hero and narrator, ex-football player-turned-private eye Karl Craven, certainly can put it away. Within an hour of arriving from St. Louis, Missouri, in the rather vague town of Paulton, Craven discovers his partner has been assassinated by a sniper while going to the bathroom and his method of dealing with the shock is to send out for a quart of bourbon and some magazines (“Film Fun and some of those others with photographs of half-naked babes, and Black Mask.”).

After a busy afternoon of reading and drinking, Craven hits the town, meets a redhead (the first of several femmes fatales) for whiskey sours and a bar fight, then moves on to a steak dinner accompanied by a bottle of champagne and a bottle of brandy (mixed), which pretty much sets the tone. At one point, as a hangover cure, our hero quaffs six raw eggs stirred into a half-bottle of brandy for breakfast, for as Craven himself says at the end of the book, “being a detective toughens a fellow up.”

Craven and his partner were ostensibly in town to investigate a mysterious cult named after a self-styled, but now dead, prophet called Solomon, which has ensnared several young girls and has a reputation for strange rituals that might or might not include human sacrifice. (Shades of Hammett’s The Dain Curse?) But avenging the death of his partner soon takes precedence over being hired by Penelope Grayson’s rich uncle to find and rescue her from the clutches of the cult, and Craven tangles with the local police chief, shady lawyers, and a vicious hood named Pug Banta, who has an army of Tommy-gun-toting heavies at his command.

And even when outnumbered and outgunned, our hero retains
his sense of humor:
My mind went to all the times I’d seen it done in the movies. They did it fine there, and in books. The hero was always knocking hell out of three or four armed men. I even saw one movie where he took on eight at once. Franchot Tone, I think it was. I could lick hell out of eight Franchot Tones, armed or otherwise, but I couldn’t do anything about the two toughs. Not without getting shot. I wanted to put off getting shot as long as possible.
However, it wasn’t the drinking or the violence which made Solomon’s Vineyard notorious: it was the sex. Right from the start, it was going to be the sex.
From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed. The silk was tight and under it the muscles worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and, brother, those are things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and went after her along the station platform.

She walked towards the waiting-room. She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pine-apples. Every now and then, walking, she’d swing a hip until it looked like it was going out of joint and then she’d throw it back in place with a snap, making the buttocks quiver under this dress that was like black skin. I guess she knew I was following her. ... She had been looking straight ahead, but suddenly she turned ... and smiled at me. Her smile said: We could have fun together, big boy.
And, of course, they do, but the blonde’s idea of “fun” isn’t exactly Craven’s--at least not at first, though he soon gets into the
swing of things:
She slapped me. She was strong; my cheek stung. She moved in, swinging both arms. Now she had her fists closed. She hit my arms and my chest. I tried to hold her.

“Hit me!” she said.

It was goddam queer. I held her arms, but she got loose. She struck my chest.

She said: “Hit me.”

I hit her easy on the ribs.” That’s right! That’s right!” She hit me a couple of hard blows. Her eyes were wild. She hit me a hard punch on the neck. I hit her in the belly. I heard the breath go out:
ouf! It didn’t stop her. She kept coming in, punching hard.

I gave her one over the kidneys. She grunted and clinched with me. She bit my arm until the blood came. I slapped her. She put her knee in my groin. It hurt. I lost my balance, grabbed for her, and we both went down. ... My hand caught in the scarlet shirt. The silk tore to her navel.

“Yes,” she said.

I got the idea. I ripped the shirt off her, she fighting all the time and liking it. I ripped at her clothes, not caring how much I hurt her.
Masochistic sex scenes (there are more) were obviously a step too far for American publishers (though not British!) in those pre-Spillane days of 1941 (although if memory serves, there were numerous references to masochistic violence in the script of The Glass Key). Julian Symons was probably not the first reviewer to note that Solomon’s Vineyard was “a savage and for its time a sexually outspoken book,” and in the main reviewers much prefer Latimer’s earlier Bill Crane stories or his 1955 non-series novel, Sinners and Shrouds, which some regard as his masterpiece.

Yet for all its outrageous, almost reverential toughness, Solomon’s Vineyard does not deserve to be forgotten as it can be seen as a pivotal point in the mystery writers’ treatment of sex and the historical bridge between Hammett and Cain before the war, and Spillane and Ian Fleming after it. (I’ll bet anything Fleming read Vineyard in wartime London.)

Today’s readers might not even blink at the sex scenes, though even the least politically correct among us might blanch at the casual treatment of every single female character or “babe,” not to mention Greeks and Negroes. Serious mystery readers might despair at a plot which eventually spirals out of control and of a detective whose methods strain credibility even by the cheapest pulp standards.

Yet there is no denying the sheer bravura of the writing here, which is spattered with knowing one-liners. It was almost as if Latimer, who knew and respected the form, and had a good track record in it, had said to himself: Let’s see how far we can push this.

There is no doubt in my mind that he knew full well what he was doing, and the preface to this book comes in the form of a note to the reader from its narrator, Karl Craven himself:
Listen. This is a wild one. Maybe the wildest yet. It’s got everything but an abortion and a tornado. I ain’t saying it’s true. Neither of us, brother, is asking you to believe it. 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. All HE done was write it down like I told it and I don’t
guarantee nothing.
READ MORE:Forgotten Book: Murder in the Madhouse, by Jonathan Latimer,” by Evan Lewis (Davy Crockett’s Almanack).


Dave Zeltserman said...

A great book. Latimer was clearly heavily influenced by both The Dain Curse and Red Harvest, but this is still a great book on its own merit. The assumed name the narrator took, Karl Craven, was truly inspired. I'm sure the sado-masochism was part of the reason the book was banned, probably also the strong hints at necrophilia.

Craig said...

I've read most if not all of Latimer's books, including Solomon's Vineyard -- and for my money his masterpiece was The Lady in the Morgue, which features some snappy dialogue, great scenes (including the opening in the Chicago morgue) and clever plotting.

Frank Loose said...

Great review. This is one of my all time favorite noir books.

I respectfully disagree with Craig; i think SV is twice as good as Lady in the Morgue. I wish Latimer wrote more books in the hardboiled vein. He certainly had the talent for it.

The two covers posted with the review are terrific. Wish i had one of those editions. I have the Ressurectionary Press edition, and the Black Mask version title The Fifth Grave.

I believe the Black Mask version is edited, but I am not positive. The Resurrectionary Press edition has around 26 "typos," or scanning errors. Still, a minor distraction to a great story.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Today's readers do blink at the sex scenes, I think, or at least I did, because they are so unexpected. The line between sex and violence was never so blurred as it it here, and that blurring is what preserves the scenes' ability to shock readers.

Latimer probably wrote violence better than any other American crime writer. I don't remember which Crane novel it's in, but the scene of Crane beating up a taunting visitor in jail (Crane is the one behind bars) is one of the more harrowing scenes of violence in all of crime fiction, and this in a book published in the 1930s.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

SOLO said...

For those interested Solomon's Vineyard is online at

Dave Zeltserman said...

Peter, there's the scene in Solomon's Vineyard where Craven pulls the mobster's head through the bars and beats the hell out of him. Great scene, one of the best in the book. I don't remember any such scenes, though, in the Crane books. As to which was better, hell, Lady in the Morgue and Solomon's Vineyard are both great books--it's like arguing which is better, Maltese Falcon or Red Harvest, you can't go wrong either way.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, my memory had been playing tricks on me. The scene you mentioned is the scene I was thinking of. Thanks.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Tom K Mason said...

I read Solomon's Vineyard years ago and loved it. Headed For A Hearse has been sitting on my shelf since then. I think it's time I got around to reading that too. Thanks for the push.

Max Allan Collins said...

Latimer is one of my favorites. When I was a kid discovering Hammett, Chandler, Cain and Spillane, I found Latimer, too, and numbered him their true peer.

Still do.

The Bill Crane books are fairly tough themselves.

Peter Rozovsky said...

One might not ordinarily compare Latimer and Norbert Davis, but both mixed hard-boiled storytelling with humor in unexpected ways, though they did so in different proportions, of course.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"